Phil Chipman is living the good life. The 62-year-old retiree surfs almost daily, still plays in his college rock band, and he's got a set of wheels that run for a penny a mile.
Chipman drives a two-seater that he designed and built to run entirely on electricity, one which plugs into any standard socket.
"My mission was to prove that you could build an electric vehicle in your garage and that there are alternatives out there," the Costa Mesa resident said of gasoline-powered vehicles.
His three-wheeled vehicle is a hodgepodge of used and hand-crafted parts from different modes of transportation: motorcycle suspension, old airplane seatbelts, aeronautical metal tubing , and batteries typically used by boats, to name a few. He purchased the various pieces off the Internet and by scouring junkyards, spending less than $5,000 total.
But this project brought to life by electricity is no Frankenstein monster. Designed with a lifted tail-end (to show off the streamlined metal tubing underneath) and a sleek fiberglass body with a glossy coat of white paint, Chipman created a balance between aesthetics and efficiency.
"I originally was going to bring the back all the way down," Chipman said, indicating the fiberglass body which comes to a point above the rear wheel. "That would have created more efficiency, but my 10-year-old neighbor thought this would look cooler."
The project took him about three years, which breaks down to 600 hours of labor and a lot of understanding from his wife, he said.
"He's a little strange," said Laina, Chipman's wife, although she said his quirky projects were a large part of what drew her to him when the couple married in 1988.
Chipman recently entered his electric vehicle in UC Irvine's Energy Invitational, and took home two prizes after competing against six other teams.
The May competition through the UCI Henry Samueli School of Engineering challenged electric vehicle-builders to create a vehicle that could complete on a multiple-terrain course and go the farthest distance on one dollar of energy, according to the event website.
Chipman came in third place overall and won the prize for "Longest Projected Distance."
His car can travel up to 20 miles without recharging and costs about a penny's worth of energy per mile, he said.
Based on miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe) calculations, which measures the distance traveled per unit of energy consumption, Chipman projects that his vehicle, when compared to a gasoline-powered vehicle, would do the equivalent of 400 miles on the gallon.
But for now, he'll keep his trips to less than 20 miles.
"I don't want to get stuck somewhere," Chipman said. He keeps a cable with him on long trips for emergency "refueling" at prearranged locations.
The car can reach up to 50 mph, which is perfect for quick sorties onto Coast Highway on his way to his favorite surfing spot, he said.
"The car just takes off from a stop," Chipman said.
Chipman was able to insure the car through State Farm Insurance and registered it with the California Department of Motor Vehicles as a motorcycle.
However, the car is set much lower than other vehicles and its fiberglass body would be no match for a truck or SUV, Chipman said.
"You'd be a cream puff," he said, explaining that the car has to be driven "defensively" as you would a motorcycle, watching the other drivers around you for clues that they may be turning.