At first glance, this rockabilly Batmobile looks like a retro-fetishist's pet project. It's not. In fact, this freak machine, hand-built by a ragtag team in an Illinois town of 1200, is the deepest look into the future of cars you've ever clapped eyes on. One frigid day in Brooklyn, Gizmodo buckled in for a ride.
This suede-black torpedo is the Illuminati Motor Works Seven, a battery-powered electric car built for the 2010 Progressive Automotive X Prize, which offered $US5 million to anyone who could build a 43km/L car as roomy, fast and sure-footed as a modern family sedan.
The Illuminati team didn't win the jackpot — a mechanical issue disqualified the car in the final competition — but team leader Kevin Smith and his shadetree crew have been improving their baby ever since. And when Kevin, author Jason Fagone, and two Illuminati team members arrived in the Seven for a Brooklyn book event — Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America, Jason's new book, is a compelling look at the Automotive X Prize story — Gizmodo called shotgun.
The Seven is sweeping: as long as a full-size ute, as slender as a Toyota Prius, and low enough to rest my elbow on the roof. The arcing fenders exaggerate the comic book proportions, while chrome headlight trim from a 1937 Ford, spun aluminium wheel covers, and that sinister matte finish nod to the early days of homebrew hotrodding.
The carbon fibre and kevlar body took shape in a sketchbook, the rise and run of the curves guided by Kevin's imagination and pages he photocopied from an ancient textbook on aerodynamics. It's draped over a frame of steel tubes that were heated in a wood stove and bent to shape by hand. "We'd just grind and muscle it into shape," Kevin said. "One of the guys [from MIT's X Prize team] said, 'they just beasted this thing together.' And that's what we did."
The bizarre exterior gives way to a more familiar looking cockpit when you climb through the gullwing door, a feature Kevin opted for simply because he could. There's a climate control system, a radio with auxiliary input, even cupholders for the front and backward-facing rear seats. Oh, that's right; the rear seats face the cars behind you.
The grey felt-upholstered interior is about as roomy and well-appointed as a 10-year-old family sedan, and a 10-second lesson on the rotary knob that selects Reverse and Drive is all anyone would need to drive it.
Once we're rolling, though, the familiarity of 100 years of petrol-powered automotion melts away. Crawling around double-parked cars on a cobblestone street, the electric motor's note is nearly imperceptible, a faint whirring underneath the slap of the tires against the crumbling road. Cruising between stoplights, it makes a noise not unlike a quiet vacuum cleaner, if vacuum cleaners could accelerate four grown men and 1300kg of car down a city street. It sounds similar to a Prius in electric-only mode, though maybe a tad louder. Compared to the shuddering, coughing taxis around us, the Seven's motor sounds downright pleasant.
Then traffic opens up, and Kevin drops the hammer. The Seven accelerates with surprising authority, thrusting ahead on a wave of instantaneous torque. Now the vacuum cleaner is pissed, emitting something approaching a high-pitched growl despite not being powered by dead dinosaurs. Illuminati Motor Works says the car will do zero-to-100 faster than Subaru's BR-Z sports car. I believe it.
The acceleration is impressive, but not nearly as much as the environmental bits and bob. In official EPA testing at a Chrysler facility, under the same stringent conditions used by the major car manufacturers, the Illuminati Motor Works Seven clocked in at 88km/L. That's right: this 200 horsepower jalopy, built by a group of amateurs in a pole barn, can travel over 80km on the amount of electricity equivalent to a litre of petrol. It also does a verified 200km/h, seats four six-footers, and can fit a golf bag in its befinned trunk.
For comparison, Volkswagen's two-seater XL1, which Popular Science just called "the most efficient car ever", smokes the Seven at 110km/L. But it tops out at just 160km/h, makes only 74 horsepower, and takes twice as long to go from zero to 100. And it cost VW untold millions to engineer. The Seven would show its LED taillights to an electric Nissan Leaf in a drag race, and the Seven's 320km range towers over the Leaf's sub-160 rating. The only thing in the same neighbourhood is the Tesla Model S, which dusts the Seven on acceleration and maybe, possibly equals it in driving range.
Kevin Smith at the wheel of his invention
It's legitimately hard to believe. "When [Illuminati team leader] Kevin first told me what the car could do, I thought he was full of shit," Jason told me after my joyride. "But I thought it was interesting enough to follow him, cause if he could do it, what would that mean? If a guy in a barn, working with a couple of friends on the weekend, could make a 200 MPG (85km/L)car, with a 200 mile (320km) range and 130 MPH (209km/h) top speed, then why couldn't the big auto companies do it?"
The Illuminati Motor Works Seven isn't going to steal customers from the big companies any time soon. Kevin has $US200,000 of his own money wrapped up in it — "two Teslas" in his terms — and while he jokingly told the constant stream of curious onlookers that "anything's for sale for the right price," he's probably not parting with it. Besides, one jerry-rigged wombat on wheels isn't going to uproot the industry.
In truth, it's barely even a prototype; it's a notebook sketch that jumped off the page and onto the rural roads of Illinois through sheer gumption and delusional optimism. But the Illuminati Motor Works Seven shows us just how much is possible beyond what manufacturers are offering us today.
Kevin Smith is convinced, obviously. So is his wife, who bought an electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV to park next to the Seven. Jason Fagione, the author who started this journey as a sceptical non-gearhead, tells me his next car will be electric.
Looks like the future is headed our way. With swooping fenders and gullwing doors.