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The New York Times – Waiting on the Elio, a Three-Wheeled Dream Car of the Future

Waiting on the Elio, a Three-Wheeled Dream Car of the Future

SOURCE: The New York Times


Last year, Sean Donahue, a 37-year-old marketing director at a branding firm near San Diego, attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where, amid virtual reality goggles and 4K televisions, he saw a design that struck him as truly futuristic. “It looked like something out of the movie ‘Gattaca,’ ” Mr. Donahue said. “As a nerdy tech guy, I was enthralled with it.”

The invention was a prototype of a two-seat three-wheeled car built by Elio Motors, a Phoenix-based start-up founded by Paul Elio in 2008 with the mission to create an inexpensive, American-made, fuel-efficient vehicle.

The $6,800 Elio uses the relatively ancient technology of a gas-powered engine. What makes the car seem advanced is the slender, rocketlike body made possible by its tandem seating design. Aerodynamically curved, it can travel 84 highway miles on a gallon of gas, according to its maker.

Perhaps in a gambling mood, given that he was in Las Vegas, Mr. Donahue plunked down $500 to get his name on the Elio waiting list.

That list now numbers some 40,000 people, said Jerome Vassallo, vice president for sales at Elio Motors. It is likely to grow when the Creamsicle-orange prototype appears at the New York International Auto Show, which runs through April 12 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.

The first Elio was scheduled to roll off the line in 2014, but difficulties raising capital and securing the former General Motors plant in Shreveport, La., which the company plans to use as a production facility, have caused delays. The debut is now planned for 2016.

Without an actual car to sell, Elio Motors is selling spots on the waiting list. It offers two reservation plans, refundable or nonrefundable, in amounts of $100, $250, $500 and $1,000. Those at the $1,000 refundable level will get their cars before the $500 refundable people. But a person who risks $100 in nonrefundable payment will receive an Elio ahead of the $1,000 refundable holder.

Fork over a nonrefundable $1,000 and you will receive an Elio bumper sticker, Elio T-shirt and your car’s production number. So far, about 14,000 people have gone all in, Mr. Vassallo said.

Deborah McAteer, a retiree who lives near the Shreveport plant, holds No. 18. “When I first saw the car on a news report, just looking at it I went, ‘Wow,’ ” she said.

If the Elio never rolls off the production line, she said she would have no regrets. “The contract clearly says it is to get in line for a vehicle if the vehicle is produced,” she said. “It is not a guarantee.”

Mr. Donahue said his $500 nonrefundable contribution is in keeping with the modern crowdfunding era: “I wanted to support Elio and back American manufacturing, regardless of getting the product one day.”

Others on the waiting list aren’t as philosophical. Those who have grown restless with the delays have requested refunds or taken to online message boards to discuss possible legal action if Elio Motors never produces a car.

Elio Motors has now secured the Shreveport plant and raised $65 million, Mr. Vassallo said. That amount is well short of the additional $230 million the company needs to start production. Until then, Elio Motors will keep selling spots on the waiting list — and, more broadly, a dream.

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