SANTA MONICA, CALIF.
A 1978 Triumph Spitfire convertible is doing a little sunbathing on the Santa Monica pier on a late Friday morning, the kind of day real estate boosters call "sun-splashed."
But this is not a story about a car. It's about a man called "Gadget," aka Greg Abbott, though no one ever uses his name. Gadget owns this Spitfire, one of some 50 vehicles parked on the pier and the only one that runs purely on gas.
The vehicles are about to line up for a parade that will mark the start of the first Alternative Car and Transportation Expo held in Los Angeles.
It's 10:45 a.m. – indulge me in the recurring time motif because there is, indeed, a loudly ticking clock in this story. Starting at 9 a.m. on the following day, Gadget will have 36 hours to get a difficult job done: convert the Spitfire from its original combustion engine to a fully electric car.
I'm going to amplify this because it's hard to comprehend just what this will entail: He's going to transform an old gas-burning, particulate-spewing car into a completely clean, zero-emissions electric vehicle. He's going to do this by removing the old engine, exhaust, and fuel system and installing a new electric motor with everything it needs.
When he's done, the car will go faster and be more powerful than it was with the old engine, he promises. All of the work will be done on the floor of the expo, in full view of the browsing public, where failure would be a transparent humiliation.
Plus, he's going to perform this task with the assistance of guys who have never done this before – and without using a single power tool.
Because he wants to make the point that, even though this may sound like rocket science, it isn't. He wants to make this point because he is the owner of a company called Left Coast Electric, and it is his plan to mass-produce conversion kits so that just about anyone can transform any car into an electric vehicle.
To carry out this extreme motor makeover, Gadget needs three basic parts – the electric motor (it's about the size of a breadbox, but heavier), lots of car batteries, and something he designed called "the box." It houses a controller, an electric converter, and the rest of the whatnots.
Gadget has just one problem this morning: The electric motor has not yet arrived from his supplier. He seems unruffled. He's confident that it will come today. Confidence, it turns out, is something Gadget has plenty of.
Gadget is middle-aged, trim but solidly built. He sports a Vandyke beard and flashes a mischievous grin that gives him the look of a swashbuckler, though he's more adept with a torque wrench than a rapier.
Gadget is like a lot of backyard tinkerers who are trying to solve the nation's energy crisis one volt at a time. As oil prices have boomed, the new wave energy gurus are trying everything from tapping the power of ocean waves to make electricity to using French fry grease to power cars.
None of these technologies on its own will solve the nation's energy ills, of course. But the impending decline of the fossil-fuel age, coupled with the rise of concern about global warming, is leading to a burst of entrepreneurialism, not unlike the early days of the computer revolution.
"Just as Microsoft and Apple came out of garages, the new cars of the future are being made in the same places," says Edwin Black, author of "Internal Combustion."
Gadget's car odyssey began when he set out to build a go-cart at age 15. He quickly realized that he could get his driver's permit in six months, so instead he decided to build a car. His mother drove him to a metal shop. A few months later, he produced a vehicle that worked – and drove 10,000 miles through 24 states after getting his license. Impressively, the car got 52 miles to the gallon – in 1977.
Despite this success, his career path into the automobile business would not be linear.
First, he would spend 30 years as a contractor, a butler, a metal fabricator, and dancer. In 2004, while working on a Discovery television show, Gadget converted a BMW motorcycle to electric. It sparked his interest to convert a car – one of his favorites, a Triumph Spitfire.
He found the principles easy but the work arduous because the relays, cables, controller, and converters all came from different manufacturers. He saw a business opportunity.
He created "the box" and began Left Coast Conversions (now, Left Coast Electric), believing that the time was right for a resurgence in the electric car. That's right, a resurgence. Little known and largely forgotten, there was a time when the electric car in America was king.
According to Mr. Black, electric cars have been around for 175 years if you count the crude carriages made by Scotsman Robert Davidson and American Thomas Davenport in the mid-1830s. By the late 19th century, they were taking off in Europe, and in 1899 a Belgian electric car claimed the world land speed record at 65.8 m.p.h.
In the US, electric, steam, and gas all vied for dominance in the nascent automobile industry. For two years, 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all others – a notable achievement even if the number of sales was fewer than 2,000 a year.
Their time at the top was short-lived, though. Several events brought them down, including the discovery of oil in Texas, the building of roadways that demanded greater range, advances in combustion engines, and patent lawsuits – the most famous of which was won by Henry Ford in 1911.
But, according to David Kirsch, who studies nascent industries at the University of Maryland business school, it was the cultural appeal of internal combustion that ultimately made the difference.
"Electric vehicles worked really well in cities, but their range was always limited by the batteries," says Mr. Kirsch. "Internal combustion was a gentleman's toy of conquest, embedded in a culture of high speed, escape from the crowded cities, and a turn-of-the-century Anglo-Saxon fear of the great unwashed. At the end of the day, what killed the electric vehicle was that it couldn't do what people with money really wanted it to – which was go out in the country with your girlfriend."
At 11:30 a.m. the odd and eclectic collection of alternative vehicles begins rolling off the Santa Monica pier, led by a police escort. They proceed along a five-mile parade route through the city to a hangar at the local airport, site of the weekend expo.
"People came out on the streets and cheered," says Gadget upon arrival at the hangar. "But the Triumph kept overheating and smelled terrible. Jeez, I hate gas."
By 1:30 p.m., the Triumph is jacked up at his booth, ready for its makeover. Gadget leaves for his workshop in Culver City, where he expects to find the electric motor that he ordered waiting for him. In fact, it is not there. Without it, his project is dead. Gadget starts calling his supplier. The news is disastrous – the motor will not be coming. Is his project doomed?
• Next: Part 2 – the conversion hits a balky transmission pin.