WPSU

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Drive Like a Millionaire

Sport of kings--and captains
of industry
Yesterday, we were docked at Jekyll Island, Georgia. A mandatory place to see is the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. This grand hotel opened in 1888 as a private playhouse for  famous millionaire captains-of-industry, including William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Joseph Pulitzer, Everett Macy, and J.P. Morgan.  


Sir?  Your car is ready . . . .
The hotel is an elaborate Victorian confection, with a turret, and gingerbread trim, and--yesterday--a croquet game in progress on the lawn, the players properly attired in white flannel. The place looked like a movie stage set (which, indeed, it has been). 


In our grubby boater duds, we've been mistaken for homeless people. Yet in this more egalitarian age we ate lunch at the grand hotel . . .  in the sandwich shop, at the back. 


Afterward we biked around on the island's plentiful bike paths, under the arches of the grand old live oaks weeping with Spanish moss, and one of the most interesting places we stopped was . . .  the airport.  


It's quite a small airport, so there are no shops or concourses or baggage claim or rental car counters.  What you DO find is something a bit unexpected: An alternative energy rental car agency called Red Bug Motors.


The owner, Rich Van Iderstyne, says his business was inspired by the original millionaire inhabitants of the island.  During Jekyll's heyday as a winter retreat for the wealthy, the transportation of choice was tiny electric cars called Red Bugs. "Gasoline engines of the day were noisy, and those millionaires liked their peace and quiet," Rich explained.

Ad for the orginal Red Bug
The original Red Bugs were small and lightweight, with a chassis made of ash wood. They looked more like go-carts than automobiles! And they were powered by electric motors, reaching a top speed of 16 mph on the island's oyster-shell-paved roads.  


Millionaires didn't get that way by being spendthrifts. These little cars were both quiet and economical.  Cost in 1925 to ride around the island in a chauffeured automobile: $5 an hour.  Cost of running your own electric Red Bug: $3.50 per WEEK.


Fast forward to the 21st century.  Rick's Red Bugs are made by Global Electric Motorcars, LLC (a subsidiary of Daimler/Chrysler), which calls them GEM Cars. They're manufactured in America--Fargo, North Dakota, to be precise. The technology got a boost in 1998, when the National Highway Safety Administration designated a new class of car, the Neighborhood  Electric Vehicle, or NEV.


Rick's got your ride
See, GEM cars are more than glorified golf carts.  They're street-legal (as long as the posted speed is 35 mph or less). They have a bunch of extra safety stuff that golf carts lack:  seat belts, windshield wipers, etc. etc.  They don't go too far on a charge--about 30 miles.  But you can "refuel" anywhere you can find a 110-volt outlet (which is pretty much anywhere). Takes 6 - 8 hours.


A GEM car costs half as much as a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt.  Of course, it's also much smaller than either of these vehicles, and you can't drive it on high-speed highways.  


But it's an economical solution for certain people in certain situations.  
I read an account in the Aspen Times of a bakery that makes lots of short distance deliveries and saved money by switching to a GEM car. I suspect there are many families for whom these cars would make sense as the second vehicle. GEM's website includes a cute little cost calculator so you can figure out the bottom line.


The cars are certainly ideal for vacation destinations like Jekyll Island, where the longest trip you can possibly take is the 15-mile circuit around the island, and all the local roads are  low-speed.  


And aside from all the zero-emissions eco-stuff, you have to admit they're cute . . . cute as, well, the proverbial bug.











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