Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How a car guy turned his back on gas

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 25, 2008

VICTORIA

As the price of gasoline has gone up, so, too, has the workload at Randy Holmquist's shop.

In January, he had three employees. Today, he has six.

All four work bays were busy yesterday. As soon as a vehicle was finished, another took its place.

Still, the orders pile up like the Colwood Crawl at rush hour.

"We're so freaking busy right now," he said, taking a break in a hectic day to answer a few questions.

Right off the bat, he got stumped.

He was asked the price of gasoline in Errington, outside Parksville, where he has based the world headquarters of Canadian Electric Vehicles Ltd.

"Around a buck forty, I think. I don't know."

How would he? He long ago converted his Dodge Dakota to run on diesel.

Now, he's altering it to run on vegetable oil.

At home, the ride-on mower runs on electricity, as does the rototiller.

"We don't have anything that runs on gas," he said.

That's quite a statement from a fellow who has always been a car guy.

Mr. Holmquist, 48, remembers the family car, a Rambler station wagon in which his father, a cabinet maker, used to haul wood.

He grew up in Nanaimo, where car culture thrived in the postwar years as prosperity from high-paying union jobs in the mills paid for the cost of turning a stock model into a muscle car.

He owned his first automobile before he could legally drive. He bought a '67 Mustang at age 15, rebuilding the engine before taking it for spins along the old Island Highway.

In Grade 10, he rebuilt a Volkswagen engine that he then attached to a dune buggy, which he drove on some off-road adventures. "I'd beat it to death on weekends," he said, "fix it in the school shop and then do it all over again the next weekend." He got an A in shop that year.

Among the grease-stained car culture crowd, he was seen as a bit of an oddball for his preference for building and racing vehicles that weren't street legal. What the heck was the point if he didn't intend to blow the doors off some other guy's racer?

In 1989, he had an epiphany on a beautiful summer day. He was lounging on the beach near his home at Lantzville, gazing across Georgia Strait to the Sunshine Coast. Only the other coast wasn't seeing any sunshine.

A greenish cloud of exhaust haze had moved up the coast from Vancouver.

He decided he could no longer contribute to the pollution.

He bought a wrecked '63 Triumph Spitfire for $500 from a neighbour - "It was literally in boxes" - with the intent of building a reliable, clean vehicle for his daily 30-kilometre commute to his job at Anchorage Marina in Nanaimo.

He gutted the car, replacing the internal combustion engine with a kit purchased from a U.S. company.

The two-seater roadster turned out to be a poor choice. The axle broke. The torque of the electric motor caused other problems.

He then converted a cherry-red Nissan pickup truck. It zipped along silently at 120 km/h, startling other drivers who would speed up to check out what at the time was still a novelty.

At work, the truck was plugged in for the drive back home. To cover the cost, a nickel was left for the boss.

The truck is still on the road at Royal Roads University, outside Victoria.

Mr. Holmquist left the marina job to go into business selling conversion kits.

A few years ago, he moved to Errington, which was founded in the 1890s as a roadhouse on the way to Port Alberni. In those days, horse power transported people, only to be replaced by horsepower engines. A century later, Mr. Holmquist converts Chevrolet S10 pickups to electricity. The basic do-it-yourself conversion kit for these vehicles is $9,525 (batteries not included).

He also sells something he calls the Might-E Truck, a low-speed, mid-sized truck. For five years, he has been waiting for Transport Canada's approval for its use on streets and highways.

While most of his trucks are sold in the United States, where they are approved for use on public roads, he has found a niche market in Canada. One truck is used by municipal workers in Whistler, three are on the grounds of the Bruce nuclear station in Ontario, and 10 can be found on the University of British Columbia campus, with more on the way.

A larger electric truck is in use at airports at Dubai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

Mr. Holmquist's company also sells an electric towing unit called a Might-E Tug, which is popular with hospitals.

Before carbon taxes and gas-pump robbery and even before the 2006 release of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, Mr. Holmquist has been a quiet evangelist for a quieter, cleaner mode of transport.

So, the price of gasoline is not something he follows closely. He called on one of his employees.

"Hey, Shane. What's gas today?"

"One forty-two nine," he replied.

Which is at least 1,429 reasons to be driving electric.

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