Dale Brooks had the hardest time getting inspection stickers for his car this year. He visited seven places until someone knew what to do with his sporty white two-seater. Everywhere he went, people asked him to pop the hood and marveled at the strange sight under it, the conspicuous lack of an engine. But then they sent him away. One mechanic told him he had to obtain a special sticker. Another said only one place in all of Houston inspected his type of car. Then there was the guy who just didn't get it.
"What year is it?"
"Then you need an emissions test."
"But there are zero emissions."
You still need a test, the man insisted. "Fine," Dale said. "If you can find the tailpipe, you can test it."
There is no tailpipe on Dale's car; it is electric and runs on 20 six-volt batteries. Dale is president of the Houston chapter of the Electric Auto Association. He and a handful of others are tired of this freeway-laden, traffic-congested, smog-infested city. They're practicing a kind of civil disobedience, Dale jokes, by driving electric vehicles in this big oil town. But seriously, Houston has had a big problem coming for a long time, he says. And now it's here. For two years in a row, Houston beat Los Angeles to win the dubious title of dirtiest air in America, underscoring Dale's belief that the gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine has got to go.
"Petroleum is poison. And it is running out," he says.
According to Scientific American, cars account for half of the oil consumed in the United States, roughly half of urban pollution and one-fourth of greenhouse gases. In 1990 California adopted a zero-emission vehicle mandate requiring that major automakers make 10 percent of their vehicles emission-free by 2003. New York and Massachusetts enacted similar rules.
Having driven an electric for two years now, Dale says he would never go back to regular cars. Aside from the environmental advantage, Dale also finds them superior to gas-powered cars because they don't smell, make a lot of noise, or require oil changes or tune-ups.
"With a combustible engine, you basically have a barbecue pit that you need to keep cool, and on the other side you're carrying enough fuel essentially for a bomb."
The electric vehicle (or EV, for short) on the other hand, requires almost no maintenance. Once a month Dale checks the distilled water in the batteries. Sure, EVs come with their own set of problems. For one, their range is limited: 50 to 80 miles on a single charge, depending on batteries. But most of us don't drive that much on a daily basis. (A Department of Transportation study found that 95 percent of all vehicles travel less than 50 miles a day; 54 percent of us drive less than five miles.)
If he needs to go out of town, he'll rent a gasoline-powered car, Dale says. But until then, he happily drives his EV and talks to other guys in the club. They meet once a month and shake their heads at the shortsightedness of the rest of us. Leading the head-shaking is Ken, the patriarch of EV lovers in Houston. Without him, there might not even be electric cars zooming around in this town.
At 80, Ken Bancroft has spent most of his life working with his hands. They are large hands, bony and sturdy, that match the gaunt, weathered landscape of his face. Lately, though, they have sat idle. Ever since a terrible pain in his stomach sent him to the hospital for 21 days in August, Ken has spent most of his time hooked up to an oxygen machine, a clear tube trailing him like an umbilical cord.
Ken estimates he has converted 30 cars to electric in the last quarter-century, each conversion costing between $4,500 and $6,500. Customers have called from all parts of the country and beyond: from Vancouver, from Baldhead Island off the coast of North Carolina, which has a strict "electric only" transportation policy, and from Cheyenne Mountain, just outside Colorado Springs. The bunker for NORAD, an aerospace defense system, lies nearly a mile beneath the mountain and cannot afford to have its air polluted, Ken says.
In his living room, the curtains always drawn, he opens cheap photograph albums filled with pictures of past projects. Here's a picture of the Volkswagen Fastback, one of the first cars he converted. Here it is again with a cavernous space in it after Ken pried the engine out. He proudly offers other photos, as a father might show school pictures of his children: a Suzuki Samurai, several vans, a 1995 four-door Volvo 850 that a woman brought brand-new and asked Ken to convert.
Cars fascinated Ken at a young age. His father tinkered with them too. "I just love cars," Ken says. "Fast cars and beautiful women." When he was 13, Ken began apprenticing with a man who was building a race car. At 16, faced with the prospect of repeating the eighth grade for a second time, Ken dropped out of school to work full-time as a mechanic's assistant. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the army and became a motor sergeant, overseeing more than 100 vehicles and their drivers. Sixteen days after his discharge, he returned to New Jersey and opened his own garage.
But then Ken grew tired of cars. After his first of two divorces, he became a salesman. In 1958, while selling vibrating armchairs, Ken came to Houston for the Livestock Show & Rodeo and stayed, selling cleaning supplies for a chemical company. Eventually he started his own cleaning business, sanitizing everything from downtown office buildings to warehouses. One of his tasks was polishing the floors with an electric scrubbing machine that he walked behind mile after mile. There had to be a better way to do this, Ken thought. So he built a two-wheel cart and attached it to the scrubber so that it could pull him along. When that proved successful, Ken started thinking about a car.
"I've got an 800-pound machine, four big batteries, 16 gallons of water, and it takes 24 volts to pull that. Why wouldn't it pull a car with more volts?"
Ken cut an electric motor out of a dilapidated forklift and transplanted it into a white Volkswagen Bug. When he turned the key, instantly, quietly, the car was ready to go, as easy as flipping a light switch. Ken christened the car Lightning Bug. It was 1974.
For the next few years Ken converted cars in his spare time. Then gas prices climbed to $2 a gallon and he could not keep up with the demand. In 1979 Ken sold his cleaning business and converted cars full-time. Members of the EAA met at his shop on Clarkcrest Street in southwest Houston. He also franchised with Jet Industries, an Austin-based company that mass-converted vehicles on an assembly line. Jet replaced the engines in Dodge Omnis with electric motors and called them 007s. It converted Dodge vans and Ford Escorts too. Ken even had a showroom. When oil prices went back down to a dollar a gallon in 1983, Jet Industries went broke. So did Ken.
But he continued to work out of his garage at his home, and people around the world call him to consult his expertise. His garage overflows with boxes, wires and parts, making the walls look like the interior of a robot turned inside out. The husk of an early-model Escort sits on his back lawn.
Although new people have joined the club since he revived it in 1987, the level of interest has never been the same as in the late '70s. Ken tries to introduce electric cars to high school auto shop classes, but most kids don't care. "It's a shame," he says. "They can't see beyond the end of their noses."
Meanwhile, Ken has recovered from his surgery and feels strong enough to work again. He made sure that the tube to his oxygen machine runs long enough to stretch out of his house and into the garage. Already he has his next projects in mind: a pickup and a 21-foot boat.
A funny thing happened this past spring at one of the EAA meetings. Members parked in the front parking lot of the Greenway-area office building where they meet, and naturally, they plugged in. Then someone called the police and reported that they were stealing electricity.
People feel threatened by the unfamiliar, Dale says.
Or they might react with curiosity, like Ben Chamberlain, who has sacked groceries at Kroger for the last decade. At one club meeting, Ben rambles on about celebrities who drive electric cars. Did you know, he says earnestly, that Yasmine Bleeth of Baywatch has one in real life? New technology intrigues him, so he was surprised to learn that the technology of electric cars is more than 150 years old.
Electric cars first attracted Ben not because the environment concerns him or because he loves cars, but because he is frugal. He saw one back in the '70s and liked the idea of not putting gas in it. All his gas cars have been lemons. One, a Cadillac El Dorado, was stolen three times in three months, costing him more than $6,000 in repairs.
His Jet 007, though, cost him only $6,000 total. Of course, it is a 20-year-old car. But the fact that this car is still running 17 years after Jet Industries went out of business is a testament to the company and to electric vehicles. Aside from dropping $1,300 for a new set of batteries every five years, his car costs him almost nothing. Ben also owns an electric scooter.
The electric car was first invented in 1837. At the turn of the century about 30 percent of horseless carriages were battery-powered. Clara Ford, wife of auto magnate Henry Ford, drove one. Internal-combustion engines were noisy, emitted noxious fumes, were hard to start and occasionally ran over owners who cranked the engine with the vehicle accidentally in gear.
"At the turn of the century, women drove it because they didn't have to get out of the car and hand-crank it," Ben says. "Also the hand-crank ones vibrated and -- how can I say this -- they were getting excited."
But three events led to the demise of the EV: the discovery of Texas crude oil, the invention of the electric starter and mass production.
Fast-forward to today: A once-popular vehicle is now a rare sight, driven by those in a subculture of geeks and greens. In a way, EV lovers are no different from members of other car clubs -- American boys with their toys, a love affair with cars. They meet on-line at various Web sites where they dispense advice about conversions or locate cars for sale.
The difference is that EV enthusiasts believe not just that their cars are beautiful but that they can change the world.
Terry Hanlon's backyard in Manvel, Texas, is littered with cars, several vans, trucks and Mazda RX-7s. They lie in the overgrown grass and mud puddles, a graveyard of abandoned vehicles. Terry can't help himself. He keeps buying them, thinking he can fix them, or at least use them for parts. An auto mechanic teacher at Alvin Community College, Terry estimates he owns 25 cars. Last year he and his son Brian converted their first car to electric.
They did it because they thought it would be fun, not because of the environment. Don't get them wrong -- Mother Nature is important and all, but mostly they converted a 1967 apple-red Chevrolet Corvair because no one else had done one.
"It's kind of like having the weirdest picture on the wall," Terry says.
Converting a car takes common sense, he says. First, you want to pick a car that isn't too heavy. The batteries, at 65 pounds apiece, add up, so the lighter the car, the better. Terry chose the Corvair because it had lots of space on either end to balance out the batteries.
Then you remove only four things: engine, exhaust, radiator and gas tank. Everything else stays. In goes the electric motor (about half the size of an engine), a mounting plate to attach the motor to the transmission, the speed controller, a charger and a set of lead acid batteries. In place of the gas cap is a normal three-prong socket. Because an electric car consists of fewer moving parts, it spends less time in the shop for repairs. Some people even add electric air-conditioning and heating. A normal hair dryer makes a decent heater, Terry says.
The challenge of building an electric car is to make it as efficient as possible. "People who build them are economical people," Terry says. A Scientific American analysis found that electric cars use 80 percent of the energy they produce, whereas gasoline engines use only a third. The cost per mile: 1.5 cents. Right now, he and Brian have taken the Corvair apart again and are tinkering with it in hopes of achieving a better range. It can last 40 to 50 miles; the Hanlons want to double that.
When Brian drives the car to the Coastal gas station where he works, he zips along as fast as anyone else. Even at 70 mph, it hardly makes any noise, humming like a remote-control toy car.
"It's so quiet that when people see it they think it's some European sports car," Brian says.
"What's that crazy thing?" people ask.
However, the electric car does have its disadvantages. Because of the batteries' weight, the brake pads may need replacing more often. Also, while EVs can speed just as fast as normal cars, they lack the horsepower of regular gas engines, and need six to eight hours to recharge with a regular 110-volt charger (and half as much time with a 220-volt charger, which costs at least $800). One club member, Todd Hunter, tried installing solar panels on the bed of his pickup so it could charge all day.
And for those who just can't give up their big cars and trucks, there's another problem. You can't convert SUVs -- not that it's impossible. "You can convert anything you want if you have enough money," Brian says. It just wouldn't be efficient. An electric SUV would take more than 30 batteries to power, and its weight would drain so much energy that its range would be severely limited.
The key to building more efficient and bigger environmentally friendly cars lies in developing better batteries. Nickel-metal hydride batteries enable a car to travel more than 200 miles but add nearly $40,000 to the price of a lead-battery vehicle. Fuel cells, which create energy by causing a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, emitting only heat and water, are even more expensive. Currently used on space shuttles, fuel cells have the potential to power huge vehicles without limitations in range.
Two of the world's biggest automakers -- Ford and DaimlerChrysler -- have bought large chunks of the fuel-cell developer, Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems. Along with other automakers and energy companies such as Shell and BP, they are testing cars and buses in California. But until fuel cells are mass-produced, they remain steeply priced. A prototype of the fuel-cell-powered Ford P2000 cost $6 million to build, its tab picked up jointly by the Canadian and U.S. governments.
When Dale Brooks got divorced two years ago, he changed his whole life. He moved from Alief to inside the Loop, lost weight and got rid of his Pontiac Bonneville ("a big Barcalounger on wheels," he says). Then, while waiting in line at a Radio Shack one day, he met Ken. In the midst of converting a car, Ken converted Dale too. But Dale couldn't find an electric car right away; very few factory-made electric cars are available, and most EVs on the road are homemade.
"It's like a goddamn drug deal to get ahold of these cars, much less buy them," Dale says.
Along came a white Jet 007. He named it Pearl, after his grandmother. "When you assign name and gender, you talk to it. You treat it a little better. It's an extension of you rather than just a machine."
For 18 years Dale has worked closely with machines as a television engineer at Channel 13. ("My job is to make Debra Duncan's eyes sparkle.") His home, its contents meticulously organized and labeled, is stuffed with Beta tapes, film projectors and recording equipment. He produces records as a hobby.
Even as a youth, Dale leaned green and antiestablishment. As a member of the ecology club at Bellaire High School, he "liberated" trees from demolition sites and replanted them at school. He rode motorcycles because they were more fuel-efficient. By driving an EV, he's doing his part to save the environment. His mantra is "do more with less."
"As an engineer, I know there's at least a half dozen solutions for any problem," he says. "The trick is to find the solution that's elegant and works under a number of conditions." For Dale, the EV is a wonderful solution.
For Monty McGraw, previous president of the Houston EAA, any number of solutions could work: electric, fuel cells, big rubber bands, flywheels. After all, EVs are not 100 percent pollution-free, because when they plug in, they use electricity produced at a plant, which most likely burns coal. Plus, disposal of the batteries still poses a problem, as they contain lead. Monty doesn't care which technology prevails as long as it's not gasoline.
"Oil is a nonrenewable resource, and it will absolutely not happen again in anyone's lifetime. It took millions of years to make that," he says. Society should save petroleum for medicines and plastics that depend on it. Not cars.
Driving an EV, he says, "is my small protest."
The McGraw home in Spring is filled with robots (his) and ferns (hers). Monty first found an electric postal van while vacationing in Florida five years ago. He shipped it home, fixed it up and put 4,000 miles on it driving back and forth to work at Compaq. But then he wanted something peppier.
He converted a 1988 Pontiac Fiero GT just in time for an electric vehicle race in Arizona in 1996, where some of the cars looked just like Indy 500 race cars. There, someone slapped the sticker "Lead Acid 200 volts" on his car so that firefighters would know what extinguishers to use in case of an accident. Monty placed third in his race; he left the sticker on his car, the only indication from the outside that his car is different.
Now he's fixing an electric tractor. Working on electric cars requires some extra caution. "Don't hold the frame and touch the battery -- that's a circuit. I've been bitten like that," Monty says.
This year club members put together EV shows throughout the Houston area and a solar-panel pine derby at an elementary school. They want to show people that there are alternatives, Dale says, because consumers and government must demand alternative-fuel vehicles. Major car and oil companies have resisted every step of the way. In California they have persuaded lawmakers to drop earlier deadlines for zero-emission requirements. Before it merged with Exxon, Mobil Oil Corp. took out ads in The New York Times calling electric vehicles "a promise too far."
Although automakers spent $1 billion on electric car research during the 1990s, that's nothing compared to the $5 billion they spend a year on U.S. advertising alone. Last year Honda pulled its EV-Plus from the market and announced that it had stopped building pure electric cars because they were not profitable. "If we were making money on the cars, it would be another story," said American Honda Motor Co. spokesperson Art Garner.
Hybrids, which use both an electric motor and a gas engine, like Toyota's Prius and Honda's Insight, have been selling briskly in Japan and made their American debut this year. Ford has announced that a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility, expected to get 40 miles per gallon (nearly twice the mileage of the gas-powered model), will be available by 2003. And DaimlerChrysler is working on a hybrid Durango SUV. Drivers of hybrids don't need to sacrifice convenience or distance, because the cars don't need to plug in; the electric motors recharge on the fly during braking.
"A nice idea," Ken says of hybrids. "But it's not solving the problem."
But even these cars are hard to get hold of -- the Prius has a five-month-long waiting list -- partly because dealerships have little incentive to push them since the profit margins are higher on bigger, gas-only cars. Priced at $20,000, they're being sold at a loss.
As to pure electric vehicles, car manufacturers have created a few, like the Think City (a subsidiary of Ford), a plastic-body two-seater that resembles a giant tennis shoe, for use on university campuses and at amusement parks. The Ford Ranger EV pickup, marketed as a commercial fleet vehicle, isn't available to the general public. Most electric cars are used in fleets by government agencies or corporations so that employees can drive them during the day and return them to a depot at night.
In the consumer sector, EVs remain scarce. Since its launch in 1996, General Motors' EV1, a sleek, swift sports coupe, has attracted a hard-core group of enthusiasts. With neck-breaking acceleration of zero to 60 mph in less than nine seconds, and its ability to get over 100 miles on a single charge, it handles like any sports car. However, auto executives admit they never intended to sell many electric cars. The EV1 is available only for lease at $499 a month in California and Arizona, and customers have to submit to two days of interviews and instruction. Companies that specialize in electric vehicles, like Solectria Corp., based north of Boston, have two-year waiting lists for their cars.
"It's the chicken or the egg," Ken says. "Companies say people won't buy it, but people won't buy it until they see it in the showroom."
Dale Brooks has no doubt that we all will be driving electric vehicles one day. But that might come harder in Texas than in other states. Even for him and other electric car aficionados, the oil industry is something they can't avoid. It seems there's always someone in the family who makes a living off oil or cars. Dale's brother is a truck driver; so is one of Ken's daughters. The other works for Shell. Ben's son works for Jaguar in Dallas. Brian Hanlon is an assistant manager at a Coastal gas station. Another club member, Wes Matus, is a diesel mechanic.
Last month state officials adopted a smog-reduction plan for the Houston area to meet a federal cleanup deadline by 2007. The plan, as mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act, calls for decreases in industrial emissions, expanded tailpipe testing, lowered speed limits and morning bans on diesel construction machines and gasoline-powered lawn equipment. However, the rules adopted by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission fall short of the pollution-reduction total that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set. Instead, it promises additional measures to make up the difference by 2004, including increased use of innovative fuel-cell vehicles.
Other Houston-area businesses are already looking forward. Through a grant partly sponsored by Reliant Energy and the Houston/Galveston Area Council, Humble Independent School District added two electric school buses to its fleet last school year, a first in the state.
Reliant Energy HL&P tested seven electric-powered vans in the mid-'90s. And since 1981, Reliant Energy Entex has kept a fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles, which now numbers 400. However, HL&P donated its electric vans because of their limitations in range and charging time and is now looking into hybrid vehicles.
"It makes sense when we distribute natural gas and electricity that those are the alternatives we're interested in," says Reliant Energy spokesperson Alicia Dixon.
Also, Rice University has ordered two electric buses to serve its inner loop shuttle route. In preparation, the university is building a charging station for the buses, which are due to arrive by the end of this month, says transportation manager Eugen Radulescu.
For now, though, Dale and other EV owners are cruising the streets on their own. When people realize he's driving electric, they often wave or give him a thumbs-up, Dale says. His car simply makes him happy. Ever since he began driving his Jet 007, which handles a little differently than normal cars, he has been cured of road rage. When it stops, it turns off. When Dale steps on the gas pedal again, it turns on. In the past, when he wasn't careful, he spun his wheels because electric cars have incredible pickup. The motor turns on instantly and doesn't need time to rev up like gas engines.
Also, he had to learn to stop slipping the clutch, because the motor operates so smoothly it never stalls. (Most electric cars have a clutch because automatic transmissions expend more energy.) The fact that his car has limited range doesn't bother Dale. You just have to think ahead to make the most out of driving, he says. You don't race up to the next intersection just to wait at a red light (you could, but that would be a stupid waste of energy). You look far in advance so you can coast right on through. Driving his EV makes him feel more peaceful. No fumes, no vibrations, just a quiet, calm ride.
"When I'm driving this car, I feel that I am right with the world," he says.
For more information on the Houston chapter of the Electric Auto Association, visit their website at www.dataline.net/hceaa/.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.