Who's Resurrecting the Electric Car? 

Forget those poky little golf cars — the battery-powered muscle car is just around the corner

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006

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.”

click to flip through (3) Reverend Gadget's electric gospel: ''If electric cars are going to make a difference, a lot of people have to drive them. They have to be affordable.''
  • Reverend Gadget's electric gospel: ''If electric cars are going to make a difference, a lot of people have to drive them. They have to be affordable.''

Related Stories

  • California Brewmasters: The Coffee Table Book About The Golden State's Beer Makers

    A weighty coffee table book might seem like an oddly elevated medium for a project about beer, but that's exactly what Nicholas Gingold's California Brewmasters is: a combination of professional-grade photography and text that serves as a hardcover conversation piece about the Golden State's historic and still-growing beer culture. The...
  • Movin' Out

    @ Milken Institute
  • More Sickened by Foster Farms Chicken

    Foster Farms chicken is still making people sick.  Government officials prematurely declared the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella poisoning that began in March 2013 over in January. But since then, new infections have continued to develop  - most of them in California, where Foster Farms is headquartered. So far the outbreak has sickened more than...
  • Foster Farms Recall 2

    After 16 months and more than 600 very sick people, Foster Farms is finally issuing a recall for its chicken. Sort of. After some intense wrangling with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foster Farms has agreed to recall some chicken produced for just three days in March. You are correct – it...
  • Safe-Sex Politics 2

    What was once a proposal that got cut down in Sacramento is now breezing through the legislature with momentum. A bill that would require porn stars to use condoms in California was approved by the Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee yesterday. This despite a last-ditch effort by a group of...

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.”

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Scenes from the O.J. Simpson Circus
    In the months after O.J. Simpson's arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the summer of 1994, the drama inside the courthouse riveted the masses. But almost as much mayhem was happening right outside the building, as well as near Simpson's Brentwood home. Dissenters and supporters alike showed up to showcase art inspired by the case, sell merchandise, and either rally for, or against, the accused football star. Here is a gallery of the madness, captured by a photojournalist who saw it all. All photos by Ted Soqui.