Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, December 03, 2004

Flight of the Sparrow

Who would have thought that a car would be the answer to my post election funk? Hey, if you can't beat them go shopping! Besides a sporty little car would be a fitting right of passage to the traditional mid-life crisis.

The car I had my eye on was the California built Corbin Sparrow which made its debut in the heady, millionaire-born-every-day, dot com era. When I read about the Sparrow in Wired magazine back in '00, I saw it as another innovative gadget, an expensive toy for people who had no more to carry than a briefcase. The appeal to me was that it was electric, a true zero emissions car.

The first time I saw an electric car was in 1990 in Ukiah where they were having an electric car rally as a parallel event with the early Solar Festival put on by Real Goods. The cars were all parked when I arrived, but then one pulled out, a skinny little red racing car. It was so quiet as it glided by it appeared to be bewitched. I was awestruck. How could one not be slayed by this magical vehicle?

The electric motor is so simple, it doesn't need a tune-up of any sort, just a replacement of brushes every 2-3 years. And it lasts 3-5 times longer than a combustion engine. If most cars were electric all those car dealerships would be sitting idle like the Maytag washer repairmen and all the support industries that put Humpty Dumpty on the road everyday would be seriously impacted. No wonder the automakers didn't want to sell EVs. The electric car hardly needs anything, no oil filters, air filters, hoses, radiator fluid, carburetors, - just batteries.

Ah the batteries. The batteries, people will tell you, are the problem with electric cars. You just can't get very far before you have to stop for a few hours and charge them.

The electric car means operating within certain limitations and to accept limitations is, well, un-American. (Never mind that most of the recent production EVs made by Toyota, Honda and Ford could go 120 miles without a charge and that the average car owner travels less than 50 miles a day.) How we love the throbbing power of the combustion engine, the way it can haul anything, pull anything, get up any hill. May we never experience a moment of being underpowered like those laughable VW buses.

The EV is not the vehicle of the open road and wilderness adventure that auto industry advertising has convinced us to want in a car. It is more like an appliance, a refrigerator doing its job, quietly tending to the daily needs of ordinary people. It's George Jetson going to work, thrilling in a high-speed elevator kind of way and it did for me what no fuel-efficient hybrid could do. It did away with the one thing I so abhorred in a car - the gasoline and the toxic fume spewing, global warming, military imperialism that comes with it.

To enter the world of Sparrow drivers is to join a brotherhood (it is mostly men) of self-assigned beta testers willing to own a car that had unusual requirements and hadn't had all the bugs worked out. Dedicated EV enthusiasts could also work on a conversion, transforming a normal car into an electric. I had toyed with this idea for many years, but I didn't have time for this kind of project now. If I kept my Honda wagon for hauling stuff, a Vespa style scooter might do for under $2000, but not for rainy weather. Ditto the electric bicycles and mopeds. No, an enclosed vehicle was best if considerably more expensive (around $8,000 for a used one and about $17,400 new).

Sparrow owners who were selling wanted a buyer with EV experience to make sure the car would stay on the road. I read the information on the site for a week, re-living my own capacity for tinkering in the days when I owned a motorcycle as my sole transport for five years. The three-wheeled Sparrow was technically a motorcycle, surely my experience would count for something.

I contacted an owner in San Leandro, told him about my motorcycle days and that I was mechanically inclined and pretty smart for a girl. "I think you would be a perfect candidate for a Sparrow," he wrote back. He had one in the color I most wanted - yellow to match my business card. I imagined painting my logo on it with the words "specializing in downsizing, space planning and time management". Think of the marketing possibilities!

"You'll meet lots of people," said his wife.

When I saw the car in his meticulously organized garage, I could see that it had been maintained to perfection. He was a car nut, just the kind of guy you would want to buy a car from. It had been his commute car, but now he wanted to buy a Jeep wrangler for longer travels. We talked for half an hour about the car and the battery maintenance. It wasn't so hard once you understood the discipline of recharging before you were completely out of juice.

The one door opened like the cockpit of a plane with electric windows on both sides. The half size curved windshield made my head feel slightly squeezed, but overall the car did not feel so tiny that I felt vulnerable on the road as I had on my motorcycle. In fact it felt as tight and secure as a rocket ship and with the 580 lbs of batteries sitting in the bottom, it was very stable and relatively safe. The wrap around steal body was solidly formed. It might bounce, but not crush. No helmet was required. The Sparrow was the helmet. Driving it was rough, noisy and wacky, but it would do. Part amusement park ride, part warehouse forklift, the electric motor had a high whine that made me feel like I was going to blast off though it was quiet from outside.

I couldn't say yes right away. It was too crazy. I would have to negotiate with many of my clients to plug in my car when I worked with them (but it would only cost them a quarter and most of them were environmentalists anyway.) Then there was my garage which looked like the "before" picture of one of my more disorganized clients. No car had been parked there for 9 years (why pollute the house with toxic fumes). It was high time to emulate the garages of my colleagues with their adjustable shelves and neatly labeled bins. My partner was very happy about the possibility of a garage clean out. When I showed her the picture of me that my Sparrow owner had taken when I was driving it, she laughed and said, "It looks like you".

In the end I just plain fell in love with the little yellow car. I knew that if I passed up this experience for sensible reasons, I would miss out and never know what adventure such a remarkable vehicle could bring into my life. So this week the Sparrow came home to rest in my newly swept out garage and I plugged it in where the second fridge used to be.


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