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 1,200, 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 $5 million to anyone who could build a 100 MPG 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 pickup truck, 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 aluminum wheel covers, and that sinister matte finish nod to the early days of homebrew hotrodding.
The carbon fiber 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 ten-year-old family sedan, and a ten-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 2,900 lbs 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-60 faster than Subaru's BR-Z sports car. I believe it.