"I drive 32 miles a day back and forth to McLean," says John Hoy Kauffmann. "Who the hell needs a Cadillac that gets nine miles to the gallon for that? This Leopard is the perfect car for that kind of driving."

For a man with an admitted taste for Cadillacs, Jack Kauffmann has developed an amazing affinity for a tiny electric car he calls the Lectric Leopard.

Kauffmann, the former president of The Washington Star, has not only bought a Lectric Leopard, he's gone into the car business.

The man who sold The Star to Joe Allbritton is now selling electric cars.

A company he heads and owns, John J. Enterprises, Ltd., has become the distributor for government and international sales for a fledgling new auto maker, the U.S. Electricar Corp.

Based in Athol, Mass., U.S. Electricar is the latest enterprise founded on the notion that America is finally ready for a battery-powered car. So far the company has built two dozen electric vehicles, says its founder and president, C.H. Waterman.

Tomorrow, Kauffmann will debut Waterman's newest model, the Lectric Leopard, for 800 invited guests at the Capitol Hilton.

Priced at $6,995, the Lectric Leopard will go 50 miles an hour and can travel 60 to 80 miles on a fully charged set of batteries, Kauffmann says. The car can be charged overnight from any standard 115 volt, 20 amp plug and uses about 50 cents worth of electricity for a full charge.

With modesty uncharacteristic of a man who also claims he's found the alternative to petroleum-powered poluters, Waterman admitted, "there are no technological breakthroughs in this car.

"We're not inventors, we're assemblers, using off-th-shelf components." That, adds Waterman is why his company has a chance in the emerging, but already crowded, electric car business.

The Lectric Leopard begins life as Le Car, the small front-wheel drive car made by Renault.

U.S. Electricar buys Le Cars from Renault, but gets them unencumbered by gasoline engines and related paraphernalia.

Up front, where Renault usually puts a four-cylinder engine, Waterman bolts an electric motor manufactured to his specifications by Prestolite Corp. The motor drives the front wheels, using Le Car's conventional clutch, transmission and drive train.

Along with the engine, a battery charger and six batteries go under the front hood. Another 10 batteries go in the back trunk, beneath the cover.

A speed control that utilizes a technique called voltage switching to avoid most of the energy wasted with dimmer-switch style rheostat speed controls is probably the most unique feature of the car, Waterman says.

That's pretty much all it takes to turn Le Car into a Leopard - except for the Leaping Leopard insignia and the fancy nameplates that are added by Jane C. Nusbaum, the vice president of John J. Enterprises.

"Janey wants the car to be zingy, distinctive," says Kauffmann. "I want people to think of the electric Leopard, not of electric cars. I want the Leopard name to be as common as Kleenex."

Kauffmann's major role in the life of the Leopard is promoting sales to the government. Government - federal, state and local - now make up about 50 percent of the market for electric vehicles, Waterman estimates.

Department of Energy researchers have a number of experimental and demonstration projects that call for buying and operating small fleets of electric cars. That's the market Kauffmann says he intend to tap first. Electric utility companies are the second most frequent experimenters with battery vehicles, and Kauffmann touts electric vans or jeeps as in-town mail trucks or delivery vehicles for businesses, and commuter vehicles.

How big the electric vehicle market is now depends on what is counted as an electric vehicle. Golf-carts, in-plant scooters and tractors, and electric fork-lifts add up to many thousand units a year.

Waterman quotes DOE estimates predicting an annual market for 20,000 electric vehicles - not counting golf carts and the like - by the mid-1980s and the total sales will hit 100,000 units a year by 2000.

Even 100,000 electric cars a year isn't enough to interest a company like General Motors, leaving the field open to small companies, Waterman belives.

"We can sell 2,000 cars a year and make a profit," he adds. That would mean $14 million in sales a year, for U.S. Electricar, which recently went public and raised initial capital of about $400,000.

The future of the car business, Waterman says, "depends on how the petroleum situation develops. The problem is now a lot of our electricity comes from petroleum." Increased use of coal or nuclear power plants to produce electricity he contends, "would make us a lot less dependent on foreign oil if we switched to electric cars."

That scenario is considered unrealistic by many energy seers, but such talk is not welcomed by Waterman, Kauffmann or Nusbaum.

"It's been a long, frustrating eight years, but now it's happining," said U.S. Electricar president Waterman.

"This damn thing works" Kauffmann stresses. "We're not telling people they can trade in the family car, but we're telling them we've got the ideal second or third car."

Adds Nusbaum, "This Leopard is not an endangered species."