Loudoun inventor’s green car strikes chord with Leesburg

August 28, 2011

Nick Turner drove past a group of 16 construction workers sitting on a curb, and 32 eyeballs locked onto the car he’d built. A guy walking into Office Depot laughed with delight and said, “I knew the economy was bad, but this is ridiculous!” Outside a bar the other night, drunk people were lining up for rides, hanging off the back of the car and asking how they could get one, too.

And then there are the downsides to designing a car powered by pedals and small electric batteries. Like when his car can’t make it up a hill, and he has to get out and push. Or when yet another tire blows out.

“Dang,” Turner, 21, said one day last week as he inched up a hill and heard the telltale gasp from a back tire.

But in a place such as Leesburg, where so many people slog through long commutes every day, Turner’s low-impact, decidedly low-tech pedal car has struck a chord. People smile when they see it. They honk. They pull over and jump out of their cars to take a closer look.

Maybe they are tired of having to bring their car into the dealer every time a warning light goes on. Maybe they feel a little too detached, sealed inside their air-conditioned rides with the Global Positioning System lady telling them where to turn. Or maybe they see his car and think: Go-kart! Wheeeeeeeee!

Whatever it is, the reaction has Turner thinking he should market and sell these things.

Turner, who just transferred to Old Dominion University to study mechanical engineering, loves cars. He always has: He built them from Legos for demolition derbies as a kid, fixed his friends’ old cars in high school, enjoys long drives. But at some point he started to worry about the environment and feel guilty about all the gas he was using.

“I don’t see how making cars the way we do now is going to last for too many decades,” Turner said.

So he took the emergency brake out of an old Honda Civic, ordered a go-kart steering wheel online, took apart a pink little girl’s bike and welded together a steel frame in the back yard of his parents’ house.

The result is a three-speed, two-seat car. (The seats are recovering lawn chairs from Home Depot.) The car is meant for tooling around town on slower roads; the top rate from the motor fed by the three batteries is 23 mph. His mother would greatly prefer that he not find a way to make it go faster. “I do worry,” Paula Turner said.

He plans to add seat belts, mirrors and other safety features. Someday.

In the meantime, he’s having fun. The car eventually will have a fiberglass shell and windows that open and shut, but for now, it’s cage-like, with no driver’s-side door and red clamps holding the trunk closed. The pedal shafts say Bulletproof — a brand name but a nice touch.

On a recent morning, he pedaled through a strip-mall parking lot, asking only the barest assist from the electric batteries, which he may replace with gas because they last only 10 miles. Or maybe a solar panel on the roof. Maybe a few different versions, under the Tuhart name he coined.

He stopped and stepped out, a young man with little silver glasses and cargo shorts and a crazy little car. People swarmed.

“Did you build this? It’s cute!” George Ruck said, drawn to it as though someone had turned on a vacuum. He leaned on the frame, staring at the inside. “You should build a couple more and sell them. . . . I would use this for getting around the neighborhood — going to the store, running errands. I think pedaling would be fun. I need to exercise — it might make me feel better.”

Ernest Spinks, a 71-year-old mechanic from Hamilton, hurried over. “That’s pretty neat, I tell you. I’d like to have one,” he said.

Spinks was pinching the tires when a woman buckling her daughter into a car seat nearby called out, “Oooh, what a cute little car!”

Teresa Ruck climbed into the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel and giggled. Her husband said, “People’ll be going crazy wanting one!”

To everyone’s disappointment, it was time for Turner to head home. He ventured briefly onto busy Route 7, just to get in the turn lane, but it felt like a very long time as enormous-seeming cars came hurtling toward the pedal car. He and a passenger both pedaled frantically, wind rushing by, hoping to boost the speed and avoid getting crushed like a bug.

So he stuck to the back way, slipping through parking lots, hopping from road to sidewalk to bike trail, sunlight falling through the leaves alongside a stream and a nice breeze riffling through the car.

“This is not the steep hill,” Turner said later as he pedaled hard, sweating a little.

He’s going to add more gears. And tougher tires: One blew out at just that moment.

He kept pedaling, the tire smacking the ground with a clop-clop sound, like a horse trotting. On the steep hill, the pedal car slowed . . . to . . . a . . . crawl.

“Made it!” Turner said with relief at the top, breathing hard. “There’s a water fountain here,” he added.

Back at home, he parked, then had to move out of the way of his mom’s car. His ride doesn’t have a reverse gear, so he scooched it with his feet.

“Backwards is just Flintstoning it,” he said. Like Fred Flintstone’s vehicle, Turner’s will have holes at the bottom for feet.

Then, he was off again, buzzing down the street, waving to neighbors, enjoying the ride.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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