CURRENT INTEREST Electric sports car a timely response to Clean Air Act


Robert Beaumont thinks his time has come -- again.

The 61-year-old Columbia businessman who brought motorists the battery-powered CitiCar during the gasoline shortages of the 1970s is all charged up over the planned launching of his second venture in electric car production later this year.

"People kept telling me I was 20 year ahead of the times. Maybe now the time is right," said Mr. Beaumont, president of Renaissance Cars Inc. Now he predicts that he will have an electric-powered sports car in dealer showrooms by Christmas.

Mr. Beaumont pinned his earlier strategy for an electric car on gasoline shortages, but the impetus this time comes from the federal Clean Air Act, which requires states to issue regulations to reduce auto emissions or face the loss of federal highway funds. Under its provisions, an electric car is considered a nonpolluting vehicle.

Working out of a small factory in Palm Bay, Fla., the 14 employees of Renaissance are busy developing a sporty, two-passenger roadster called the Tropica, along with a mini pickup truck.

"We're trying to dispel the myth that electric cars need to be boxy, fuddy-duddy vehicles," Mr. Beaumont said.

The Tropica will be about the size of the Mazda Miata and be powered by two 26-horsepower electric motors supplied by Advanced D.C. Motor Corp. of Syracuse, N.Y. Mr. Beaumont said it will feature a cable steering system "like those in boats, from small run-abouts to $3 million yachts."

The company is currently test-driving the battery-powered chassis and expects to have a completed prototype later this month.The body will be made of ABS composites, which Mr. Beaumont called "a lightweight, almost indestructible plastic-like material that is currently used in body parts for a number of cars.

"The top speed is 63," said Mr. Beaumont. "But at that speed you are not going to get the range. This car is designed to operate 95 percent of the time at speeds of about 35 or less with a range of 100 miles. At 55 or 60, you cut the range in half."

He said the roadster will sell for between $10,000 and $11,000, including Trojan T-125 batteries, the same used in golf carts designed for hilly golf courses and in industrial forklifts. According to the company, it will take between six and eight hours to recharge fully drained batteries. "For trips of 20 to 30 miles, the car can be recharged in about four hours," Mr. Beaumont said.

Mr. Beaumont says electric vehicles operate best in warm climates where the terrain is fairly level. Thus, the initial marketing effort will be based in Florida.

But he's not ruling out the Baltimore/Washington corridor, home of his other business, Columbia Auto Sales, a Jessup auto dealership specializing in late-model exotic cars. "It's not too hilly in the corridor, and the weather is not too cold.

"This is the perfect vehicle for motorists who fight bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic each day where you creep along at 35 mph," he said.

If the venture is successful, Mr. Beaumont said there could be a Tropica assembly plant located in the Baltimore/Washington area sometime in the future where about 450 workers would produce a thousand cars a month.

Mr. Beaumont's earlier company, Sebring-Vanguard Inc., produced more than 2,000 of the tiny, two-passenger, electric-powered CitiCars in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo fanned interest in alternative energy sources. But the interest waned when the embargo eased and gasoline once again became plentiful.

In addition, Mr. Beaumont added, a Consumer Reports article reported safety problems with the vehicle. It reported that during a crash test, the steering column was pushed back into the passenger compartment a half-inch more than allowed by law. There was also a problem with the brackets holding the windshield in place.

Mr. Beaumont said he will meet with officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington this month to discuss safety standards for the Tropica.

Ted Orme, a spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Association, a trade group of domestic and foreign automakers, said it was possible that a small company could succeed even though the Big Three automakers were trying to enter the market.

"This guy may have a great chance," Mr. Orme said of Mr. Beaumont. "If he wants to be a limited player, he could be successful."

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