The 1946 Oldsmobile that sits amid the old boat hulls and flywheels in the Reverend Gadget’s Culver City machine shop harks back to an era of voluptuous curves and radiant chrome; its owner, actor and comedian Tommy Chong, calls it “Ace,” and considers the car so exquisite that he lists it among his collection of sculptures. Open the door, however, and it looks like somebody doused Chong’s baby in gasoline and torched it: There’s no engine, no seats, no pedals — nothing, in fact, but a small white box bolted to the floor where the back seat should be, with two wires connecting the box to some contraption in the trunk.
“That’s for the air bags,” says Reverend Gadget, a.k.a. Greg Abbott, the craftsman, lay engineer and artist who’s restoring Chong’s Olds. A compact, muscular man, with a boyish grin and blue eyes that crinkle up when he laughs, he ushers me around the back of the car to see a little black machine branded “Praise the Lowered.” He flashes a smile and winks. “It’s a lowrider.”
When he finishes outfitting the Olds with a DC motor, enough serial-wired, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) D-cell batteries to produce 340,000 watts of power, and a computerized controller to connect the two, Chong’s ride will be the first all-electric vehicle to bounce down San Fernando Road competing for glory with the ’60s-era Chevy Impalas of the Imperial Car Club. It will also do speed when necessary. “He’s getting a huge motor,” says Gadget of Chong. “He’ll be able to do burnouts in this car.”
And so what if the electric engine whines more than vrooms? “It’ll be my spaceship,” says Chong, who currently drives a Prius. “These cars glide. The only sound you’ll hear will be the sound system and the air bags.” Plus, he says, “by driving the ultimate electric stoner car, I can get off the titty. You know, the oil titty.”
There was a time not too long ago that Chong thought electric cars were only for “guys like Ed Begley — you know, people who wear Birkenstocks and don’t eat meat.” Only a year ago, he was building Ace as a hot rod with a gasoline engine. Then he went to a party at Gadget’s place and, as he puts it, “got educated.”
“He had all his cars sitting out, and I saw the possibilities,” Chong says. “He showed me the benefits of it all and how perfect it is, and how fast can it go. Now I don’t want to put gasoline in anything.”
Despite the reputation electric vehicles have as poky little wagons for hippies and old people, the electric muscle car has been around for a while. There’s even a National Electric Drag-Racing Association (NEDRA) devoted to high-performance electrics. In 1998, San Dimas–based engineer Alan Cocconi of AC Propulsion introduced the first version of his sun-yellow tZero roadster, featured on the cover of this paper in 2002, which does 0 to 60 in 3.6 seconds, leaving Ferrari F355s in the smoke off its tires. Amateur race-car constructor Ian Wright took the tZero’s three-phase AC induction motor and fitted it to a British street-legal race car, the Ariel Atom, and managed to get all the way to 112 miles per hour in first gear. (Electric motors are renowned for their torque — Chong’s Olds won’t even need a transmission.) Wright has now joined a Silicon Valley team to produce the Tesla Roadster, a high-end all-electric sports car with a battery range of up to 250 miles.
All those cars are fine, says Gadget, who learned about fast electric cars by hanging around electric-car drag racers such as former NEDRA president Roderick Wilde, inventor of the electric Graumann postal-van drag racer, “Gone Postal,” and Palo Alto–based Otmar Ebenhoech, whose Zilla controllers dominate the EV racer market (and who races his own Porsche 914 from time to time). “But those are all quarter-of-a-million-dollar sports cars,” says Gadget. “Your market’s really small. I’m looking at it thinking, if electric cars are going to make a difference, a lot of people have to drive them. They have to be made affordable.”
So instead of building cars from the ground up, Gadget and his business partner, Roger Wilson, convert existing cars or shells of cars into electric vehicles by supplying or outfitting them with preconfigured kits loaded with everything an electric car needs except a new motor.
“Usually if you want to do a conversion from gas to electric, you have to think about all the different pieces,” says Wilson, a software designer who founded the Alternative Energy Zone Village at the annual Burning Man Festival. “You have to buy wires, cable fittings, relays, DC-to-DC converters, batteries, a motor and a special motor plate. Our idea is that if you have a kit with all the parts in it, you don’t have to think about it so much. You buy a motor, our controller module and batteries, and you put it together.”