The morning is too chilly for her flirty purple skirt and pink top, so former "Baywatch" actress Alexandra Paul wraps her bare legs in a fleece blanket and settles down for a long sidewalk vigil in Burbank, Calif. Passersby on scooters toot their horns, and a security guard smiles and waves as he walks by. Both he and the actress are there for the same reason: to keep an eye on a parking lot full of colorful, two-door cars behind a nondescript suburban office building.
Those cars are rarities, the last surviving batch of rechargeable electric coupes built by General Motors Corp. in the late 1990s. Paul and a band of homemakers, people with desk jobs, engineers, Hollywood activists and car enthusiasts are 23 days into a round-the-clock vigil aimed at keeping GM from destroying the cars.
Before their demise, EV1s were lined up by drivers for a mock funeral at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
(Kevin P. Casey -- Los Angeles Times)
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What's at stake, they say, is no less than the future of automotive technology, a practical solution for driving fast and fun with no direct pollution whatsoever. GM agrees that the car in question, called the EV1, was a rousing feat of engineering that could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in under eight seconds with no harmful emissions. The market just wasn't big enough, the company says, for a car that traveled 140 miles or less on a charge before you had to plug it in like a toaster.
Some 800 drivers once leased EV1s, mostly in California. After the last lease ran out in August, GM reclaimed every one of the cars, donating a few to universities and car museums but crushing many of the rest.
Enthusiasts discovered a stash of about 77 surviving EV1s behind a GM training center in Burbank and last month decided to take a stand. Mobilized through Internet sites and word of mouth, nearly 100 people pledged $24,000 each for a chance to buy the cars from GM. On Feb. 16 the group set up a street-side outpost of folding chairs that they have staffed ever since in rotating shifts, through long nights and torrential rains, trying to draw attention to their cause.
GM refuses to budge, but several factors give those at the vigil hope. The auto industry underestimated the appeal of gas-electric hybrid vehicles, and now the Toyota Prius, Honda Accord Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid are selling faster than factories can build them. Gas prices are headed higher this spring than last year, when they broke the $2-a-gallon barrier, and sales of Detroit's biggest SUVs have softened so much that makers are cutting back production.
Earlier this year, two men who leased discontinued electric pickup trucks from Ford Motor Co. staged a week-long sit-in at a Sacramento dealership after refusing to surrender the trucks at the end of their leases. Ford reversed an earlier decision and agreed to sell them the vehicles, and now it is setting up a program so other lessees can buy their trucks.
"If Ford can do it, why can't GM?" asked Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee who helped organize the Burbank vigil.
The company says that it cannot sell the cars because it would have a legal obligation to service them and that it can't provide service because many suppliers quit making the 2,000 unique parts that went into the design.
Most automakers experimented with electric power during the 1990s when California threatened to require them to sell zero-emissions vehicles. The state eventually backed off the requirement, and one by one the car companies dropped their electric vehicle programs.