Electric Car Club Growing Fast in Illinois

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Just a couple of years ago, the meetings had the appearance of a men's club. That's no longer the case when the Fox Valley Electric Auto Association convenes in Naperville each month.

"Now it's more men, wives, college kids, grandmas, grandpas," said club president Ted Lowe, who lives in Wheaton. "The demographic's entirely different from what it was a few years ago."

The soaring cost of gas has swelled attendance at recent meetings to record levels, and membership has nearly tripled in the past two years, Lowe said. More than 200 drivers now comprise the roster, hailing from DuPage, Will and Cook counties.

But the draw goes beyond the serious joy to be found in driving past gas stations again and again.

"Hobbyists and people who care about the environment want electric cars for more than one reason," said Lockport resident John Emde, the association's longest-standing member. "We're interested not only in saving gas and saving money. We're just as interested in saving the environment."

And for some, such as Naperville resident Rick Mouche, electric cars can be collectors' items. His converted Bradley stays in the garage during the winter.

"It's more like a sports car that you drive in the summer," said Mouche, an engineer at Nalco Corp.

He found the car online and bought it from the guy in Brookfield who put it together from a customized kit.

"He built it when our last energy crisis was ongoing, and he thought he would make some money, but then gas prices came back down again," Mouche said.

"We came to the conclusion a long time ago the car companies weren't going to make electric cars for us, so we set out do it for ourselves," said Lowe, an electric engineer and computer scientist. "It isn't rocket science."

Some electric cars turn heads, such as the rhombus-shaped 1979 Citicar driven by FVEAA member Ed Meyer of Bolingbrook, which sports a rear solar panel that helps support the battery pack. But others, like Ken Adomaitis' 1995 BMW 840Ci and Lowe's converted Chevy S-10 pickup, give few clues that they run on battery power.

All provide testament to the power of motivated ingenuity.

"When presented with a challenge you can curl up on the couch and eat bonbons, or you can look for solutions," Lowe said.

Some three decades after association members first banded together — ignited by the 1970s energy crisis — to look for solutions to our oil dependence, the big auto makers are showing interest in the gas-free genre. For the people who beat them to it, the more the merrier.

"I think what everybody's interested in is that new GM Volt," Mouche said. "That's kind of where things need to go."

The Volt is scheduled for release about two years from now. Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and other major auto makers also have jumped on the electric-car bandwagon.

While a gas-fueled car can go several hundred miles on a fill-up, current electric cars have a range equal to about two gallons of gas per charge. The net effect is a fairly narrow definition of applicable use.

"You go out, do your daily tasks and you come back home and you charge up," Lowe said. "It does its mission — which is to drive locally and regionally — just perfectly."

Still, the possibilities of current battery advances are exciting to the association's members.

"With a better battery, they could actually go 200 miles. The car would become more practical for a lot of us," Lowe said.

"This is evolution. We're all just trying to survive."