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.
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.
The EV1 was widely considered the best of the crop because of its performance and innovative engineering, using a teardrop shape for slick aerodynamics. GM says it gave the EV1 every chance to succeed, spending more than $1 billion on development and dedicating an entire Michigan plant to producing it. But the world's biggest automaker said the car never had appeal beyond a core group of technology enthusiasts and environmentalists.
"There is an extremely passionate, enthusiastic and loyal following for this particular vehicle," GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said. "There simply weren't enough of them at any given time to make a viable business proposition for GM to pursue long-term." Instead, GM is developing hydrogen-powered fuel cells, a technology it hopes to market within the decade.
Even Toyota Motor Corp., which kicked off the alternative-power craze with its Prius, has concluded that U.S. consumers simply have an aversion to the idea of plugging in an electric car for a recharge. The latest ad campaign for the Prius emphasizes that "you don't have to plug it in," after focus groups and Internet surveys convinced the company that some consumers worried about that, Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight said.
Nonetheless, Toyota is aware of a growing fad among do-it-yourselfers who put a new battery in their Prius so it can be plugged in at home and then travel about 20 miles on electric power alone, she said.
Sexton, the former GM employee, said people who had daily exposure to the EV1 learned to love the plug-in feature of the car. She started working for the company's Saturn division in 1993, then volunteered for the EV1 program in 1996 and quickly became a zealot. "I even met and married an EV1 technician," she said.
Her son, 6, spent his earliest days around the cars and now has written messages to GM in chalk on the sidewalk outside the Burbank building. "This is something we're all committed to as a family because we've all lived and breathed this project," said Sexton, who has filed Internet reports from the vigil site by hooking her computer to a solar panel the group also uses for making tea.
For three weeks, she and a rotating group of colleagues have staffed their site in four-hour shifts around the clock. Their cardboard signs -- "GM make a U turn" and "Sell the EV1 for scrap. $24,000 each" -- are now curled from the heavy rains that drenched Los Angeles last month. Yesterday morning, Paul staffed the site alone, but by afternoon nearly a half-dozen people were there. Every weekend the vigil stages a rally that draws anywhere from two dozen to 100 people, Sexton said. Other celebrities have dropped by, including Ed Begley Jr., and Woody Harrelson has posted updates about the vigil on his Web site.
Last week, a big truck rolled up to the GM parking lot and took on about seven of the EV1s. Vigil participants briefly blocked the truck from leaving but stood aside when asked. Two of them followed the truck 140 miles toward Palm Springs, Calif., far enough to reinforce their speculation that it was headed to a GM facility in Mesa, Ariz., that enthusiasts have long thought was the crushing ground for discarded EV1s. GM had assured them that large numbers of the cars remained in use by researchers, but former EV1 driver Kenneth Adelman obtained aerial photos of the Arizona site to confirm that the cars were meeting their demise there.
Barthmuss, the GM spokesman, acknowledged that the cars are being recycled. "That does include flattening the vehicle so it can go through the various mechanics of recycling," he said, adding that he did not know what percentage of the fleet had been destroyed. He said that the cars stored at Burbank will eventually be hauled away for various purposes but that he knows of no set schedule.
What to do when the next truck comes has become a heated issue within the group -- to stand by passively as the cars are loaded and taken away, or to interfere. "Our policy is if anybody as an individual wants to take active resistance that's up to the individual. But as a group we're taking a passive stance," said Ted Flittner, a vigil participant and Costa Mesa industrial engineer who never owned an EV1 but used to enjoy riding in a friend's.
He accepts that the situation doesn't look promising but said the plight of the EV1 has helped bring attention to an innovative environmental project. "It's just so wasteful," he said. "They have such a brilliant solution they've developed. They've put it on the market and proved it works. People still want it and they're taking it away and destroying it."
Edds reported from California.