Frank Lloyd Wright once said the future of cities depends on the race between the elevator and the automobile, and that anyone who bets on the elevator is crazy.
America's love-hate affair with the motorcar has never been a secret. How could it be in a country where the cloverleaf has become the national flower? It is also no secret that car designers from Detroit to Dallas are parading automotive Rube Goldbergs that will run on everything from solar energy to kitchen scraps.
Almost weekly it seems another inventor comes up with a new arrangement of wheels, springs, and knobs, and calls it the "car of the future." So when I arrived recently at the "unveiling of the electric car of the future," I naturally shared the skepticism of the reporter next to me who groaned: "This is the fourth unveiling of the 'car of the future' that I've covered in the last three years."
This electric car could be different.
First, the Exar-1, as it is called, bears no resemblance to those gussied-up golf carts and jerry-built compacts that usually pass for electric cars. It has the sleek lines of a Porsche and carries five passengers. In the face of countless skeptics, the makers of the Exar-1 claim that when it is produced, the car will do 85 mph and a snappy 0-60 mph in 12 seconds. It will go from 75-100 miles on a single overnight charge, and operating costs will be a fraction of those for conventional cars, the makers claim.
Pietro Frua, the famous Italian car designer who created for BMW, Maserati, and Lamborghini, postponed his retirement to design the Exar-1, which would be one of the most aerodynamic automobiles on the road. British race car driver Stirling Moss took one look at the Exar-1 prototype and said he would junk the 19-horsepower General Electric motor, replace it with a 3,000-cc engine, and take it on the race track.
While it may look like a sports car, the Exar-1 has more in common with a computer than with the internal combustion engine. It runs on 24 six-volt batteries, is as quiet as a sewing machine, and as a longer life expectancy than your refrigerator. Projected cost: $9,000.
At the press conference last month here in Berkeley, Mayor Gus Newport introduced the Exar-1 as the "world's first realm electric car" and announced that the first Exar-1 plant would be build in Berkeley. In as short a time as 18 months, he said, some 10,000 of these electric commuter cars would begin rolling off the assembly line every year. Dallas- based American Ecological Transport (American), which developed this electric vehicle, has already attracted several hundred investors, including such Hollywood celebrities as singer Pat Boone (who has dubbed the car "The Liberator"), Donna Douglas (Elly Mae Clampett of the Beverley Hillbillies), and Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura).
The man behind the Exar-1 is Amectran president Edmond X. Ramirez Sr. The son of a Mexican immigrant, Mr. Ramirez is a shrewd, garrulous computer specialist who wears tailored suits, carries a gold pocket watch, and sports a well-coiffed beard. Mr. Ramirez has had his bankruptcies and scrapes with the law, but he claims to have surmounted them. He has invested $3 million and the last seven years in a vehicle which he hopes will make him the Henry Ford of the electric car industry.
"This is no puddle jumper," he says, gesturing to the sporty blue prototype parked nearby. "It is stylish, economical, ecological, and is going to revolutionize the automobile industry."
At the moment no production model of the Exar-1 exists, only the 11-gauge steel prototype which, with a test driver, weighs 4,915 pounds. Ramirez says the final production model will weigh around 3,000 pounds. The body of the actual car will be built of acrylic-reinforced Kevlar, a DuPont material which is said to be stronger and lighter than fiberglass and is used in bulletproof vests.
The Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy will not test the Exar-1 until it rolls off the assembly line. Last July, however, Berkeley city officials put the prototpe through a three-day road test at the Ontario Motor Speedway 30 miles east of Los Angeles. They say the car passed the test with flying colors, and they project from the test results that the lighter and better-equipped production car will "approach if not exceed" Amectan's claims for the car. Mr. Ramirez is keeping the test results secret for fear his competitors would learn too much from them. Numerous critics of the car say that Mr. Ramirez is exaggerating the performance potential of his product.
But Amectran corporate secretary Betty Guffie says she can make a believer of any doubter. She offers to take them for a ride in Amectran's S/T, precursor to the Exar-1. "I tell them to come down to Dallas. I pick them up at the airport and take them for a spin at 85 m.p.h. When they begin to cluth their seat, I ask, "Do you want me to put it into fifth?"
According to Mr. Ramirez, the operating cost of the Exar- 1 is less than 15 percent of that of a conventional automobile. Amectran figures that after some 20,000 miles the electric car will have paid for itself. Mr. Ramirez says overall driving expenses for the Exar-1 will average about 80 cents pr 100 miles , compared with $6 to $8 per 100 miles for the average car on the road. The Exar-1 can be plugged into standard household outlets and charged overnight in five to eight hours (depending on whether the voltage is 110 or 220).
The Exar-1, like any electric car, has a fraction of the parts contained in a standard car; maintenance is negligible, he claims. "GE says all you have to do is change the brushes on the motor every 8 to 16 years," Mr. Ramirez says. "The body of the car will last 40 to 50 years, but you'll probably get bored with if before them."
Gus Pelize, vice-president of Amectran, who learned Italian to work with Frua in Italy on the design of the Exar-1 says: "I've got an older car, and things are always going wrong with it. We keep waiting for something to go wrong with the electric car, but it never happens."
The lead-acid batteries must be replaced every 50,000-70,000 miles at a cost of approximately $1,400. But like a flashlight, electric cars will improve as better batteries are invented, Mr. Ramirez explains.
Much of the secret of the car lies in a cornflake-size microprocessor that determines the optimum flow of electricity to send from the batteries to the engine, flashes reminders of important dates, and even determines whether the drives is sober enough to drive by making him repeat a random six- digit number before the car can be started. In winter, if you like, the computer will turn on the car heater a few minutes before you leave the house. Conversely, an air-conditioned car awaits you in summer.
One other technological twist in the Exar-1 is the sound it emits. Mr. Ramirez discovered his car was "too quiet" for pedestrians who listen, rather than look, when they cross the street. So at speeds of less than 27 m.p.h., the car is programmed to broadcast the soft whine of a sewing machine. (Above 27 m.p.h. it makes enough noise by itself.)
Ever since he began his electric-car business, says the builder, he and his product have met tremendous resistance, primarily from Detroit and various government agencies he thinks are trying to "squelch" the new car. "We propose quite a change to American industry. A lot of people would prefer we not succeed."
Mr. Ramirez says his detractors have become "personal and vicious" by focusing on his admittedly clouded past. In his early 20s he was convicted of bank robbery and passing bad checks. He served four years of a 16-year sentence and was later pardoned by Texas Gov. Preston Smith. He has also been criticized for having gone bankrupt twice. This spring he field for a third time.
His repsonse: "My past has never been a secret. I committed those crimes 20 years ago. Sometimes I think I could get more publicity if I had promoted the [ Exar-1] by announcing: 'Ex-con develops world's first electric car.' As for bankruptcy, if my history serves me right, Henry Ford filed for bankruptcy before he finally made it."
The city of Berkeley claims it has thoroughly investigated Ramirez's background. Walter Toney, assistant city manger, says, "We are satisfied the man is not a crook. We think people can reform."
Despite Mr. Ramirez's efforts to keep the results secret, partial statistics from the July road test have leaked out. Wallace Rippel, who attended the first day of the test, is on the technical staff of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasedena where he is developing new electric motors and lead-acid batteries. Mr. rippel says the prototype reached a top speed of 66.3 m.p.h., acceleratated from 0-30 m.p.h. in "an excellent" 6.6 seconds, but took 37 seconds to accelerate from 0-60. The prototype "performed very well relative to existing electric cars," according to Mr. Rippel.
Although he says the test results fell short of Americtran's claims for the production model, he says if the company could trim the production model weight down to 3,000 pounds the lighter car could do 0-60 in 17 seconds, have a range of 90 miles, and "approach" 85 m.p.h. Lightening the Exar-1 while keeping the body strong enough to pass federal safety standards might be a problem, says Mr. Rippel, though he admits he's not a structural expert.
Mr. Ramirez dismisses Rippel's figures as "totally false." Rippel was present only for the "demostration day" and witnessed none of the final two "testing days," says Ramirez. As for getting the car's weight down to 3,000 pounds the Texas businessman says "that is no problem."
According to Dr. Carl Clark, an official in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in order to be marketable, a car should be able to go faster than 55 m.p.h., accelerate from 0-30 in 9 seconds or less have an "emerging time" from 25-55 m.p.h. of 18 seconds or less, and have a range of 21 miles or more (the Deparment of Transportation has found that 92 percent of all American automobile trips are less than 21 miles).
Before the road test, Dr. clark stressed that the performance of the prototype would be "expectedly less than the performance we can expect of the production car, because the prototype is 1,800 pounds overweight, not properly tuned, and has neither the electric motor, transmission, bearings, brakes, nor batteries that will be used in the actual production model." Ramirez "is being asked to test a car not designed for testing," said Dr. Clark. Berkeley officials also pointed out that the car was using "weak Italian batteries" and was not running on the new Goodyear low-resistance tries, which the maker claims can cut rolling friction by 40 percent. Even so, they say, the Exar-1 passed the road test standards "with ease" and "far exceeded our expectations."
Mr. Rippel says JPL is now testing two other electric cars: General Electric's ETV-1 and the ETV-2 designed by Garrett Air Research. The Department of Energy has invested some $8 million in each of these projects. According to mr. Rippel, the ETV-1, a sporty, four-seater compact weighing 3,200 ponds, will accelerate 0-30 in 8.5 seconds, and has a range "less than the Exar-1." By 1984, says Dr. Clark, General Motors will have a two-passenger electric car on the road which will have a top speed of 55 m.p.h., a range of 75 miles, and cost about $11,000. GM estimates that by 1990, 10 percent of the vehicles on the road in America will be electricpowered.
Tom Mitchell is a Hollywood talent manager who helped set up the California Electric Car Company, which bought the rights to manufacture the Exar-1 last year. "A year ago I was trying to sell stock for $10 a share" he says, "and nobody would touch it. Now they're offering me $36 a share and I'm saying it's not available . . . Six years ago the government gave Chrysler and GE millions to come up with an electric car. when Ramirez offered to come up with a prototype in 120 days, the government said to him, 'No, you're just a poor Mexican.' Well, we'll show the skeptics. There's a guy in Santa Barbara who is now selling (electric) converted Volkswagen Rabbits for $14,000. They go 50 m.p.h. for only 60 miles, and he can't sell them fast enough.
"Wait till ours hits the market!" since January 1979 the city of Berkeley had been aggressively pursuing ramizrez in hope of convincing him to locate the first Exar-1 plant here. Berkeley has been steadily losing its labor-intensive industry and tax base. Compounding this problem was the negative business image the community had developed during its political activism in the 1960s.
California Electric Car liked the idea of moving to Berkeley but told the city it would take $8 million to open a factory that would run on double shifts and produce 10,000 Exar-1s a year. The city offered to help the company get a $ 5 million loan from local banks and a $1.5 million long-term, low-interest loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In return, California Electric Car would put up $1.3 million, give the city 12 1/2 percent of the factory's pre-tax profits, and guarantee that at least 320 of the factory's 420 jobs would be offered to unemployed Berkeley residents. The deal was completed this summer.
The Berkeley "unveiling" of the Exar-1 came one foggy morning in September. Mr. Ramirez chaufferred Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport to the Lawrence Hall of Science, high in the Berkeley Hills. Mayor Newport, tall enough to play forward for the Boston Celtics, stepped from the auto at the top of the hill and quipped "The city's budget will be $9,000 bigger next year. I want one of these.
New port then gave the Texas businessman a key to the city and pronounced it "Edmond X. Ramirez Day." The Exar-1 was paraded through downtown, led by a 28 -piece Sixth Army marching band, a 1905 Model F Ford, a family circus of jugglers and clowns, and a troupe of tap dancers who dressed like pickles and called themselves the "Dancing Dills." At the end of the parade was a convertible Lincoln continental from which Ramirez, his wife, and three sons waved like a homecoming king and his court.
Not everyone in Berkeley boarded the bandwagon. rollin Armer is an electric car specialist who works as a mechanical engineer at the highly respected Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. For the last 10 years Armer has driven to work a 1,600-pound electric car which he designed. The body is made of douglas fir plywood with mahogany veneer. From the inside it looks more like a cabin cruiser than a motorcar. The car will do 55 m.p.h. but is most efficient around 35 m.p.h.
"An electric car has no business on the highway. It's for around town. In making a high-performance electric car, he [Ramirez] is selling down the river the only advantage of the electric car, which is low energy consumption," Mr. Armer says. He has just finished writing a book called "Understanding the Electric Car."
Mr. Armer doesn't doubt that the car can go as fast as 85 m.p.h. or that it has a range of 100 miles on a single charge. In 1915, the "Babcock Electric Roadster" traveled 100 miles on a single charge while averaging 17 m.p.h. In 1904, an electric car was clocked at 121 m.p.h., a record which was improved upon by California's Roger Hedlund at the Bonneville Salt Falts several years ago. His electric vehicle reached a speed of 174.92 m.p.h.
The range and speed Ramirez claims for his Exar-1 are entirely possible, says Mr. Armer. "But his car won't do everything he claims at the same time.m You can't drive it fast and far, and expect to recharge it for a low prices."
Finally, Mr. Armer questions the production cost of the car. "It makes perfect sense that an elctric car should come out of a small corporation rather than be developed in Detroit, but I figure the tooling for an electric car plant would cost about $2 billion. Someone once offered me $11 million to produce the electric car I invented. I had to say no. For $11 million I couldn't provide enough tooling for the horn buttons and hub caps. I don't know how he [Ramirez] can set up a whole plant for $8 million and make any money."
One of Mayor Newport's aides said, "With all the criticism it would be politically easy to bail out on the Exar-1, but we won't do that. It may be harder now to get the HUD money and financial backing." He added that they city would probably conduct additional tests to "end all doubts about the car."
"Ed Ramirez has a car that works" says Dick Jenner, head of Berkeley's Business Incentive Program. "Sure, he has a lot of warts. We pardoned Nixon, and what revolutionary new technology did he come up with? Ramirez has a big ego, he's larger than life, he promotes hard. and that sort of personality upsets some people. He went to prison and worked his way back up. He's been through bankruptcy, too. Years ago we would have said he was an entrepreneur. It's those aggressive qualities that Ramirez possesses which were necessary to push through the obstacles that faced him."
Yet there are other skeptics to convert, notably those holding the purse strings. The California Electric Car Company has yet to nail down the $5 million loan, and Berkeley has not yet filed its $1.5 million federal loan application.
In an age of hype many are leery of the type of supersell Ramirez and the city of Berkely are using to push "the world's first realm electric car." But then, who would have invested in the shenaingans of those two bycycle mechanics down on the beach at Kitty Hawk?