Here sat Lee A. Iacocca, who brought forth the Ford Mustang in 1964 and Chrysler's minivans 20 years later.
The Mustang revved the horsepower wars, which consumed fossil fuels in egregious amounts. The minivans sparked booming sales of light trucks, which average a low, 21 miles per gallon as a group. They now account for 48 percent of all new vehicles sold in America.
All of which is why it was odd to meet Iacocca here, in the anteroom of a suite in the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel, attending a "geekmobile" conference.
That's geekmobile -- as in electric cars, trucks and other battery-powered vehicles -- which are largely supported by environmentalists, transportation theorists, electric utility companies, and legions of scientists and technicians in search of the perfect battery.
They are the kinds of people Iacocca once regarded as outsiders -- walking, talking impediments to increased vehicle sales; the kind of people some of his former lieutenants routinely derided as "geeks."
But Iacocca said he's seen the light -- a green one, illuminating a bright future of profits for electrically powered and hybrid-electric vehicles.
"In a nutshell, I've decided to come clean," said Iacocca, borrowing words from a brochure promoting his new venture, Los Angeles-based EV Global Motors. "I plan to provide Americans a range of new and exciting electric vehicles that are quiet, clean, safe and fun."
Iacocca, 72, who retired from Chrysler Corp. in 1993, became reflective. "Look, I'm not trying to redo the world," he said. "I don't want to run another car company. It's just that I've had an epiphany, you know? You get to a point in retirement where you ask yourself, How much golf can you play?' "
He answered that question last March by founding EV Global Motors, a privately held company initially capitalized at $6 million. EV's mission is to develop and market "light electric vehicles" -- bicycles, motor scooters and "neighborhood electric cars," the latter being a higher form of golf cart capable of reaching speeds up to 25 miles per hour.
But EV Global Motors has no research and development or manufacturing expertise, which is why Iacocca later purchased a 12.2 percent share of Unique Mobility Inc. of Golden, Colo., for $3.2 million. Iacocca's share is worth nearly $11.5 million today, according to John S. Gould, Unique Mobility's director of investor relations.
Founded in 1967, Unique Mobility is an alternative transportation research company that is more accustomed to losing money than making it. Since 1982, the company has invested $32 million in electric vehicle technology without turning a single cent of profit.
But Unique Mobility's highly praised electric motors and other electric vehicle components have won customers worldwide, including Ford Motor Co. and Germany's BMW AG, as well as several Japanese auto companies, all of which are tapping Unique Mobility's talents to help develop electric vehicles of their own.
That attracted Iacocca's attention. But the veteran auto salesman said he also was drawn by something else -- the chance to popularize electric vehicles, which are statistically insignificant in the U.S. auto market.
Iacocca, using EV Global Motors as the distribution arm of Unique Mobility, wants to start producing bikes and battery-powered motor scooters, "because that is the only way you are going to get electrics into the minds and psyches of American buyers," he said.
"Let's face it," said Iacocca. "There's not much of a great market at this time for electric cars, because their batteries are too expensive and don't hold a charge long enough to give Americans the kind of driving range they now get from gasoline cars."
The best way "to get electrics into the nation's garages" is to offer consumers less expensive, highly efficient and "fun" electric vehicles, such as bicycles and motor scooters, Iacocca said. That would ease their transition into electric cars and trucks at a later date, he said.
Iacocca is relying on Ray A. Geddes, a former Ford lieutenant in the U.S. horsepower wars, to help him make a breakthrough in electric vehicle sales. Geddes, now chairman and chief executive of Unique Mobility, helped to develop muscle cars such as Ford's Shelby Cobra.
Now, with Iacocca's blessings and financial assistance, Geddes's company is working with Kwang Yang Motor Co. of Taiwan to develop, manufacture and sell electric bikes and scooters in the United States and Asia.
Geddes said that he and Iacocca expect to start selling electric bikes in this country in the spring of 1998, to be followed quickly by the introduction of the scooters. The bicycles would be priced at about $1,000, and the scooters would have an initial price of $2,000, he said.
Geddes and Iacocca believe they can sell 1 million electric bikes annually in the United States -- which is highly optimistic, inasmuch as only 10,600 electric bikes have been sold in this country since 1993, according to electric vehicle industry analysts.
If things go according to plan, EV Global and Unique Mobility could start selling small electric cars in the United States by 2003, when California will require all automakers to sell a percentage of electric vehicles in that state.
"It's risky," Geddes conceded. "But we've been working on electric vehicle technology for 15 years, waiting for the electric car to happen. We concluded that it wasn't going to happen anytime soon with cars, so we started searching for other markets where electrics could sell. That's bikes, scooters and even wheelchairs. Those are viable markets; the cars will come later."
"I probably won't live long enough to see affordable, four-passenger electric cars sold in any meaningful numbers. But this is a good start, a good project," said Iacocca.
"Besides," he added with a smile, "a project like this is good enough to keep a guy like me off the streets." Lee Iacocca: Vehicles for change 1964: Ford Mustang Features: 101 horsepower engine; 2,500 pounds; 181.6 inches long. 1984: Chrysler minivan Features: six-cylinder engine; front-wheel drive; 3,000 pounds; seating for 5 to 7; sparked the minivan craze. 1998: EV Global's bike Features: Electrically powered with removable battery pack and on-board charger; top speed: 20 mph. 1999: EV's side-by-side tandem bike Features: Electrically powered; foldable canopy for shade; halogen headlamps; bucket seats. 1999: EV's scooter Features: Electrically powered; quiet; for use on college campuses, suburban neighborhoods, downtown areas. 2004: EV's Ethos HEV Features: two-seater with open top; uses electricity and gas; designed by Pininfarina of Italy. SOURCE: Chrysler