We’ve followed this from the beginning for you. This is an interesting look at the man behind this vehicle that has piqued a lot of interest among Americans.
Paul Elio was down to the Rolex on his wrist.
It was October 2010, and the Phoenix entrepreneur had emptied his personal bank account to pay the bills for his startup car company, Elio Motors.
Elio’s wife had left him. A year late on his mortgage payments, Elio faced the prospect of losing his home too. He was getting ready to pawn the wristwatch — his last possession of any real value — when salvation came from the sky: A damaging hailstorm struck Phoenix, and an old friend gave him a job with his roofing business, providing Elio enough income to keep the startup afloat.
“There have been hard days, scary days, days when I didn’t know how we would survive another minute,” Elio, 51, a former engineer at Johnson Controls and CEO of the automotive consultancy ESG Engineering, told Automotive News as he recalled his brush with bankruptcy. “I’ve never thought of conceding defeat. Ever.”
Indeed, seven years after he founded Elio Motors to design a cheap, efficient three-wheel commuter vehicle, Elio is counting victories. Small ones, at least.
Last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the 15-person startup unveiled the latest prototype of Elio’s three-wheeler, now outfitted with a 0.9-liter engine built to specifications by the German engineering company IAV.
The same week, the company got the green light from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to raise $25 million through online website crowdfunding.
To date, 47,000 people have sent the company $100 to $1,000 over the Internet in exchange for the privilege of buying Elio’s three-wheeler, which has a promised starting price of around $6,800 and a fuel economy rating of 84-mpg on the highway.
As much as a car, they’re buying into a dream — Elio’s dream, and there’s a lot of Paul Elio in the vehicle that bears his name, down to the speedometer and rev counter, which are mounted on rotating discs visible through holes in the gauges.
Elio modeled the design after his father’s midcentury Lord Elgin wristwatch. If the Rolex reminds him of dark days, the Lord Elgin reminds him of bright ones.
“I can still see myself as a child,” Elio said, “holding his hand and looking up at it.”
Elio calls his vehicle an “autocycle,” because it blends elements of an automobile and a motorcycle. It has one door, two seats arranged one behind the other, and a three-cylinder engine cranking out 55-horses, about as much as a 1975 Honda Civic.
Classified as a motorcycle under U.S. law, the Elio would be exempt from many crash-safety regulations, though it would have seat belts and airbags. In many states, drivers would be permitted to ride solo in the carpool lane, like motorcyclists.
The idea isn’t revolutionary. From 1973 to 1981 and 1989 to 2001, England’s Reliant Motor Co. sold a fiberglass three-wheeler called the Reliant Robin as rising fuel prices created demand for efficient city cars. Today, Toyota is developing a tandem two-seater called the i-Road that steers with its lone rear wheel and leans into turns for stability.
Elio concedes well-funded automakers have the money and know-how to emulate his three-wheeler. He has no unique powertrain, software wizardry or patents.
“No new technology is allowed on this vehicle,” Elio said. “Every part on this vehicle is used somewhere else. We’re putting them together in a unique way, so we can have a disruptive effect without new technology.”
In a business plan shared with investors and the SEC as part of the approval process for crowdfunding, the company suggested it will keep prices low, cultivating loyal fans and discouraging rivals from imitating the Elio. In other words, the Elio will be sold with such thin margins that larger rivals would be crazy to imitate it.