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Electric Cars in Big Sky Country?

Gas-guzzlers rule in Montana, but one salesman is trying to grow a niche market for the environmentally friendly Zenn car.
 
 
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"So here's a guy in a diesel," says Ron Gompertz, looking over his shoulder at the truck looming next to us. It's not really necessary to look, because the growling diesel engine is nearly drowning him out.

"You wanna drag?" he asks me.

The question is an interesting one, not so much for its illicit overtones, but because it's being posed by the driver of a tiny, 1,200-pound Zenn electric car, which boasts a top speed of 35 miles per hour. The presumed competitor is a Ford F-250 Super Duty diesel pickup truck, which towers menacingly above us in the left lane.

The light turns, Mr. Gompertz hits the accelerator, and a surge of electrical zeal sends the little car flying down Bozeman, Montana's Main Street and around the next corner just before the next light changes.

"He just ran a red light to chase us," Gompertz says, brimming with glee. "Watch him as he pulls up - he'll probably look down at us and make fun."

Gompertz owns Bozeman's EcoAuto, which sells the two-seater Zenn cars, electric scooters, and gas-powered, Mercedes-built Smart micro-cars. The race seems very amusing to him, but now the gurgling behemoth is hovering just above my shoulder. I take a timid glance up at the driver. He's not making fun - just staring.

"This is the Montana culture," says Gompertz, a native of New York City. "Macho mobiles. This is the contrast. Look, he's got his big bars there [in front] to kill things with. It's Mad Max Road Warrior. ... This is the part of the Montana culture I don't get, the Neanderthal kind of thing."

Gompertz is not your typical car salesman. He's not your typical anything, really. He's dressed in hiking shoes, baggy cargo shorts, and a T-shirt that promotes Corvette racing - a throwback to his childhood fascination with muscle cars.

Cars still fascinate Gompertz, but now he's into brain rather than brawn. "It's got a cool sound, Jetsons-like," he says as he steers the whirring car through Bozeman's downtown. He wonders aloud about the whimsical future cars that were promised in magazines like Popular Mechanics back when he was a kid: flying cars, bubble cars, cars that floated on water.

"And then as an adult, no cars ever came out that looked like that. 2000 was the future. The year 2000. And what are we driving? We're driving things like that," he says, pointing to an SUV. "Who'd ever thought the future of future cars would be big, clunky, square trucks? ... We got gypped. You know? ... Here's as close as we get to the future - electric cars."

A ride with Ron Gompertz can easily be taken as a metaphor for his life: It involves risks and adversity, suffering and amusement, and ultimately, one senses, victory. He doesn't like driving on the same road twice. The same could be said for his train of thought.

In the tiny, solar-powered EcoAuto showroom on Main Street, a simple question - So, why'd you move here? - is deflected.

"Well, that's a long story," Gompertz says.

Prodded, he relents. And it's not simply a long story; it's an odyssey, filled with cul-de-sacs and scenic byways. It begins with his parents fleeing from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, moves on to New York and then San Francisco, and then spreads out over the entire country. Highlights include starting the Heyday punk-folk record label, developing a chemical formula that makes new copper look like old copper, and bringing high-quality European mosaic tiles to the malls of America. A variety of ex-girlfriends are mentioned. In 1976, as an assistant buyer for Bloomingdale's in New York, he sold a Cuisinart food processor to John Lennon, his hero. Gompertz is Jewish and his wife, graphic designer Michelle Gantt, is not, so after the birth of their daughter in 2003 they decided to jokingly celebrate "Chrismukkah," and published greeting cards and books promoting the made-up holiday, complete with recipes for "Gefilte Goose" and "Bible Belt Gelt Melt." Gompertz's mother is half-Jewish, and the books describe how, when he was a child, Gompertz's family celebrated its own version of the hybrid holiday, using a six-foot-tall plastic kumquat tree festooned with dreidels and Christmas stockings.

In between the detours, one learns that Gompertz set out from San Francisco in a van to promote his record label. After traveling to small college towns throughout the country, he got the itch to leave the big city. He ended up in Montana.

"Frequently I feel like a stranger in a strange land," he says. "I talk fast, I interrupt people when I talk - it's New York culture."

His driving style may also be an indicator of New York culture. Road work has transformed Bozeman's downtown. "What do you mean, no left turn?" he asks, piloting the Zenn car.

Defying the sign, Gompertz veers left, points the car toward the orange cones at top speed, then frantically flips a U-turn into a parking spot, hopping the curb in the process. Men in hard hats and yellow vests look on, concerned.

Gompertz first laid eyes on the Zenns - which stand for "zero emissions, no noise" - at last year's Sustainability Fair in Livingston, Mont. And he couldn't resist. He'd recently seen "An Inconvenient Truth" - Al Gore's documentary on global warming - and felt moved to do something on behalf of his young daughter. The cars seemed like the way to go. He recalls asking a Zenn representative, "'How can I become a dealer? This would be great for here!' He said, 'You're kidding me. Here? You really think so?' I said, 'I don't know if we're going to sell any, but I gotta do this!' "

Never mind that Bozeman, a college/ski town of about 35,000, isn't Portland or Seattle or San Francisco. Locals say Bozeman is a small town with big highways; the little two-seaters Gompertz sells are largely impractical for the town's families and gear-laden outdoor enthusiasts. He's sold about 35 cars so far, most to people outside the region through his EcoAutoInc.com website. All his sales have been gas-powered Smarts - except for a Zenn that he sold to a high school science teacher in Billings.

So is Gompertz crazy?

"Not at all," says Brian Schweitzer, Montana's ecoconscious governor. "In fact, if he is crazy, then I must be, too, because my wife and I are thinking about buying one of them."

The governor test-drove one of Gompertz's Zenns earlier this year, when he signed a bill raising Montana's speed limit for non-crash-tested electric cars to 35 m.p.h., the nation's highest. Rather than trying to bash his cars' square pegs into Bozeman's round holes, Gompertz is attempting to change the whole game. He plans to convert an all-wheel-drive Subaru, ubiquitous on Bozeman freeways, into an electric car.

"The Suby is so accepted here in Bozeman, it becomes almost a Trojan horse, with little guys inside: it's an electric car, but it looks familiar. It'll sneak in here."

The fact that he's gone the entire day without a single customer doesn't seem to bother him at all. He's more bothered by his self-perceived status as an "ecoposer" because he uses a VW Touareg SUV, with a trailer, to transport the little cars. And he also has trouble accepting that he is, in fact, a car salesman. Of all the hats he's worn, he never aspired to that one. He admits he sometimes has trouble closing the deal.

"There's so many people who come in and go, 'Oh, this is a really great car, yeah!' Then there's an awkward period, sort of like kissing a girl. Who's gonna do what? I can tell they're really interested in buying it, but I really can't, you know ... kiss them."

Yet another challenge, but one senses he'll get the hang of it. After all, he's been around the block a few times.

 
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