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Creativity fertilizes garden of `green' cars

Expo showcases vehicles that go easy on energy, including a yet-to-exist electric sports car.

December 11, 2006|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

From the lowly Moonbeam to the racy Spyder, "green" car makers rolled out their best over the weekend in Santa Monica for the curious and ecologically inclined.

The event was dubbed the Alternative Car and Transportation Expo. Organizers called it the largest show ever of electric, natural gas, biodiesel, ethanol and high-gas-mileage cars, with more than 100 exhibitors.

"Perception lags reality," said Christine Dzilvelis, chief organizer of the two-day expo at a Santa Monica Airport hangar. "I don't think most people understand that there are a lot of viable alternative vehicles out there."

The estimated 10,000 attendees were a fraction of the million or so who took in the annual L.A. Auto Show, which ended Sunday in downtown Los Angeles. But organizers of the city-sponsored Santa Monica event were enthusiastic about the response to their emerging technology exhibition.

Its entries ran the gamut from homespun and quirky to polished and even corporate, such as the already mass-produced gas-electric hybrids from Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Even Enterprise Rent-a-Car had a booth to announce that it would offer the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid next year.

Alternative technology providers at the show were eager to give drivers new choices and build new businesses.

"I know people are ready for a change," said Chris Paine, who directed the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and attended Sunday.

Car buyers will vote with their dollars and makers will find a way to get them what they want, he said. "You can't stop the money."

Indeed, the builders of the yet-to-exist Electrum Spyder said they had lined up 17 reservations for their all-electric sports car by Sunday afternoon, which requires a $20,000 down payment.

The dark paint on the dashboard of their silver prototype still looked wet, and the console was unfinished. Its look evoked a humorous reference to auto industry legend Preston Tucker, who struggled with staging of his prototype car in the late 1940s before ultimately failing.

"Tucker had nothing on us," joked one of the builders, Dale Dean of Universal Electric Vehicle Corp. in Thousand Oaks.

But the $70,000, two-seat Spyder, with its fiberglass composite body, will go from zero to 60 mph in as little as 4 seconds, builders said, and can travel 300 miles. President Greg Lane hopes to start production in August after 100 cars are reserved.

Mainstream auto manufacturers are often skeptical of start-up companies' ability to provide service to their customers, and Lane acknowledged there were limits to what he can do when it came to repairs.

"If you live out of state, we'll sell you one," he said. "But you're on your own."

In sharp contrast to the sexy Spyder was the Moonbeam, a little bubble of a car that resembled the ball turret of a World War II bomber and looked about as uncomfortable.

Fortunately, Jory Squibb has no plans to try to mass produce the three-wheeler, which he put together over the course of about 1,000 hours by combining parts from two motorcycles at a cost of $2,500.

Content to look a bit like an eccentric Yankee, the retired yacht captain uses the Moonbeam mainly to roll around his city of Camden, Maine, and try to show people that they can get by with smaller cars. He says he can get more than 100 miles per gallon and pays $6 to fill up every two weeks.

"I based it on the microcars that came out in Europe after World War II," he said, when money and resources were scarce. He'd planned to drive his car from Maine to Santa Monica until his wife talked him out of it.

Attendee John Wesley Eatman sat on the Moonbeam's wooden bench seat on a lark, but came away from the expo stoked with plans to convert his Chevy F10 pickup to hydrogen power.

The Culver City computer network engineer hopes to reduce his mileage costs as much 60%. "I have to drive all over seeing clients," he said.

Other visitors were eager to scoot around the tarmac in flashy "neighborhood electric vehicles," as they are categorized in the industry. The glorified carts by American Custom Golf Cars Inc. and others mimic popular vehicles such as hot rods, complete with painted flames, and the gas-guzzling Hummer.

Keeping the green vibe were other exhibitors with such products as bamboo skateboards and a solar panel that sticks on the roof of a hybrid Toyota Prius and boosts its electric power. A vegan buffet was served to diners who relaxed in bamboo chairs.

At the more mainstream L.A. Auto Show, alternative cars are still an afterthought, according to Dan Kalb of the Union of Concerned Scientists environmental group.

"They highlight some great things with their PR people, but they are not really using their engineers all that much" to create more clean cars, he said. "There is so much more they can do."

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roger.vincent@latimes.com

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