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DRIVING; Cute, Clean, Quiet and Pulling Into Traffic


Published: June 4, 2004

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ON most mornings when he thinks there might be a swell, Tim Brown, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., takes a cup of coffee and his labradoodle and heads out to check the waves. His three-finned surfboard is strapped down and ready, overhanging the tiny roof of a curious metallic-gray-and-white machine that looks one part Volkswagen Beetle, one part iMac and one part golf cart.

He climbs in, settles the dog in the passenger seat, turns a key, hits the ''forward'' button and rolls away in near silence through tree-lined streets toward the beach, ready for neighbors' friendly waves and tourists' dumbfounded stares. It's another day in a GEM car.

GEM stands for Global Electric Motorcar, and since 2000, when it bought the company, DaimlerChrysler has turned out thousands of them at a shiny factory in Fargo, N.D. A tiny insect-like electric with a stripped-down, surprisingly tall body on which even doors are optional, the GEM looks like an outsized Happy Meal toy. ''I have dogs bark at me because they've never seen a car like this,'' said John Trevino, another Laguna Beach GEM owner.

But it is a real automobile -- all 5 horsepower and 48 volts of it -- legal in 30 states, including New York, Florida, Michigan and California. And it has been quietly creeping onto American streets, assisted by a low-key but deliberate marketing campaign and, lately, by enthusiastic owners.

''Besides being fun and adventurous getting to cruise around town without any doors, you can put four people in for double dating.'' said Mr. Brown, a chiropractor, who shares his GEM with his wife, Becky. ''I could be on the payroll for GEM.'' Since he's been showing his around, he said, ''I'm sure that no less than 20 people have told me that they're going to buy one.''

Mr. Trevino and his wife, Kerry, defy the barking dogs to ride out often in their GEM, with their 20-month-old son in a car seat. They liked the car so much that they bought three more, which they rent out to vacationers at nearby hotels.

''Our son loves it,'' Ms. Trevino said. And Mr. Trevino added, ''Most of our renters have kids because the kids are like, 'Oh, let's go rent that thing.' ''

The GEM has obvious environmental and economic advantages -- no emissions, and so what if gasoline prices rise -- and Mr. Trevino points out that it's visible on the road, ''as tall as a minivan.'' But it won't replace the family car. Its maximum speed is 25 miles an hour, and the federal government classes it as a neighborhood electric vehicle, limited to roadways where the speed limit is no higher than 35. It is not required to have heavy-duty bumpers or air bags, though it does have to carry three-point seat belts, headlights, brake lights and turn signals. And though it can be recharged in the family garage, plugged into an ordinary 120-volt household outlet, for as little as 50 cents, Daimler said, depending on local electric rates, it needs a recharge after 20 to 30 miles. Where the cars are street legal, they are subject to registration and insurance rules that apply to ordinary vehicles.

So far, at least, Daimler has no plans to make the GEM faster or to increase its range, and no strategy to use it as a wedge into selling full-size electric cars. Many of the 28,000 GEM's the company estimates are now being driven in the United States are used on internal roadways at places like college campuses and state parks, or by police officers giving out parking tickets, and many of those were donated to government agencies or nonprofit groups in an aggressive 18-month giveaway program begun in 1998 to put them into circulation. (Some, like the four at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, spend most of their time inside buildings.) Daimler's initial interest in GEM's was to meet a mandate, now defunct, that a small percentage of automobiles distributed in California and New York would have to produce no emissions.

The company still makes occasional donations. It is lending 38 GEM's for use by delegates at the Group of 8 economic conference on Sea Island, Ga., next week -- one, an American-flag-festooned four-seater, is for President Bush. But, to Daimler's delight, the GEM is also attracting customers at dealerships (dozens of GEM dealers, in several states, are listed at Buyers pay $7,000 for a base model to $13,000 for one that's fully loaded.

According to Richard Kasper, president of the GEM division, the car is turning a profit. And though he wouldn't release actual sales figures, he said in an interview in Fargo last month that sales for 2004 were running 30 percent above projections.

The Global Electric Motorcar was the brainchild of Dan Sturges, now director of Mobility Lab, an automotive research center in Southern California that he founded in 2001. He first envisioned the GEM when he was an automotive-design student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1986. ''I was just interested in the future,'' he said in a telephone interview last month. ''When I couldn't find any manufacturers to produce any prototypes, I set about to start up a company.''

That company attracted backing and made the trans2, a GEM forerunner, in Livonia, Mich. But after 350 were sold, at $7,000 each, the molded plastic body panels began to weep an oily fluid that ruined the finish, required a recall and essentially bankrupted the company. A private investor from Fargo bought its assets for under $300,000 to start Global Electric Motorcars, began production and sold GEM for ''somewhere north of $30 million'' two years later, Mr. Sturges said. He is philosophical about missing the windfall, expressing gratitude that the car was kept alive.

On a stormy afternoon last month, Mr. Kasper proudly showed off the sparkling 100,000-square-foot plant in Fargo, which employs 80 people and is capable of turning out 200 GEM's a day. Skeletal, evolving cars hung from a mobile assembly line.

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