A Visionary Plugs In to the Electric Car Race

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

DETROIT -- To say the least, Malcolm Bricklin, chairman and chief executive of Visionary Vehicles, is tenacious.

Bricklin brought Subaru, the gull-winged Bricklin SV-1 and Yugo automobiles to North America from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

Some of his ventures, such as that with Subaru, were bona fide successes. Others, such as that with the Bricklin SV-1 and the ill-fated Yugo, were dismal failures.

Now, from all public appearances, Bricklin seems to have experienced another embarrassing flop -- the termination of his two-year campaign to bring affordable, high-mileage cars into the United States from Chery Automobile of Wuhu City in China's Anhui province.

Chery, instead, has chosen to enter the U.S. market by supplying small cars to DaimlerChysler's Chrysler Group, which desperately needs economical, fuel-efficient automobiles to help stem the loss of buyers to Asian rivals in an era of rising fuel prices.

Bricklin, clad in his trademark black clothing, said in an interview here at the North American International Auto Show that he is undaunted by Chery's decision.

"God bless them," he said of the decision by Chery's executives. "It's not the way they wanted to come into the United States. They would have preferred coming in under their own brand name. But it has to be good for Chrysler."

Bricklin's New York company has turned its attention to the seemingly impossible task of beating giants such as General Motors and Toyota in the race to market plug-in electric cars.

GM's Chevrolet Division on Sunday presented a prototype of a plug-in electric model, the Chevrolet Volt, to the international media in Detroit. GM's chief domestic rival, Ford, had a huge prototypical display of what it calls its "HySeries Drive" technology, which features a plug-in electric, hydrogen fuel cell that can power a car 25 miles at speeds of up to 85 miles per hour on a fully charged lithium-ion battery and then go another 200 miles on electric power generated by a small gasoline engine.

Ford and Toyota officials have been meeting in Japan on an unspecified project. There is speculation in the global auto industry that the two companies might be working on a deal for plug-in electric cars.

But GM and Ford officials say they are at least a decade away from coming up with affordable, reliable lithium batteries that would make plug-in electric cars feasible. Bricklin says he can do the job in half that time, or better.

"I don't have to worry about amortizing the value of transmissions and other components I'm using in traditional gasoline-powered cars," Bricklin said. "I don't have that kind of infrastructure. I can start fresh."

Bricklin acknowledged that the bigger car companies have billions of dollars to pour into the development of plug-in electric vehicles and that they are loaded with technological and engineering talent. He said they are serious in their pursuit of electric automobiles. "And that they are smart enough" to eventually bring them to market, Bricklin said.

"But there is no way that they can just walk away from everything that they have invested in current technology, and that includes Toyota's complicated, expensive [gas-electric hybrid] system," Bricklin said.

The yet-to-be-named Bricklin plug-in electric would be "simple and affordable," Bricklin promised. "It's going to be a fabulous plug-in electric that gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. It will be luxurious, and it will cost 30 percent less" than anything produced by the big companies, Bricklin said.

He was sketchy on the details. But he is not alone among senior, rambunctiously visionary automotive veterans in thinking and talking about developing an inexpensive, environmentally friendly, high-mileage automobile.

Other like-minded individuals include two industry icons, racing great and automotive designer Carroll Shelby, who turns 84 this week, and Lee A. Iacocca, 82, the legendary chairman of what was once an independently owned, American-controlled Chrysler.

In recent years, Shelby and Iacocca have discussed the possibility of developing a car that can sell for $10,000 and get at least 50 miles per gallon. Iacocca, at Bricklin's urging, once tried his hand at developing a market for electric bicycles after retiring from Chrysler in 1993.

"The technology wasn't ready to make it work back then," Bricklin said. "But it's ready now. We can do this. We can give America an affordable car that gets 100 miles per gallon. We have to do this."

He said he plans to discuss the idea with Shelby and Iacocca. He beamed at the thought -- what a magnificent last hurrah. Three members of the "automotive over-the-hill gang" beating the big companies to market with a 100-miles-per-gallon car.

"That would be something," Bricklin said. "We can do this. I know we can do this."

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