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Longboat Key Sunday, Mar. 13, 2022 3 months ago

Longboater's electric runabout turns heads

On an island full of supercars, Steve Penn gets a lot of requests for rides in his tangerine machine.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

Steve Penn actually looks forward to driving these days.

He enjoys climbing into his open-air two-seater, flicking it into gear and taking to the road to the shops, or over the bridges to Bradenton or downtown Sarasota. 

And although Penn’s love of the two-lane blacktop might not be an unusual feeling on an island filled with motoring machines that end in -rrari, -ghini and -rsche, his is likely unique, even in the formal Miriam-Webster sense of the word.

He drives an Arcimoto, an American-made, three-wheel electric runabout. Instead of producing a molar-rattling, basso-profundo sound as he accelerates to the speed limit, down Gulf of Mexico Drive and past the town's only gas station, all nearby cyclists or joggers might hear from him is a soft, high-pitched, faraway-jet-engine-reminiscent-whine from Penn's motor. 

So it's not the sound of a V-8 or V-12 under the hood that attracts crowds pretty much everywhere he goes. The tangerine-orange color, the sporty look and Penn's smile in the cockpit probably play equal roles in gravitationally attracting the curious. 

Steve Penn points out some of his car's features to Nelson Peters and Rich Oliver at the Longboat Key Farmers' Market last week.

“I've been to the tennis center to get a repair done on my racket, and a gentleman there on his bicycle hopped off and started asking me questions," Penn said of a recent experience that's often replayed itself. "'Can I get a ride?' I have to say I've probably given two dozen people rides."

Penn, 68, retired from a career with a company that manufactures pharmaceutical packaging. He said he and his wife first stepped into the electric car world when they bought a Tesla in Connecticut and loved the experience. But in Longboat Key, the prospect of connecting a 220-volt charger in their condominium parking garage was not feasible, something not unique to the surrounding community. 

On the road, the Arcimoto Fun Utility Vehicle accelerates briskly and is steered with motorcycle-like handlebars and a twist-grip throttle.

With one car (a Subaru) in Florida and no real way to efficiently charge their Tesla here, Penn turned to the Oregon-based company he had begun researching months earlier and placed an order, which was filled in January.

Arcimoto, which sells in Florida and five other states now, offers a range of electric vehicles that can charge easily on typical 110-volt electrical current. Some models are strictly fun; others are built for business. There's even a version with emergency lights for first-responder use.

Penn's is the Fun Utility Vehicle model, which begins at around $18,000. It's street legal (he enjoyed the use of windshield wipers for the first time just the other day), has a top speed of about 70 mph and a range of about 100 miles. There's a small compartment in the back with enough capacity to carry a few grocery bags, and Penn is expecting an attachment soon to carry a pair of golf bags.

Its two seats are set in fighter-jet tandem style, with double shoulder belts that must be buckled to switch the car's systems on. There's a stereo, a digital dashboard and a clear, polycarbonate roof that lets the sun shine in.

It's registered in a state-regulatory space between motorcycles and traditional cars and trucks. The seats are heated, and Arcimoto is working on air-conditioned versions.

Penn hired an electrician for about $500 to install a small charging box in his garage parking spot and pays his condominium complex about $10 a month for the electricity he consumes. He's on the road three or four times a week running errands or simply enjoying himself.

The vehicle rides on traditional automotive wheels and tires. Just three of them.

Penn said he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist but added that there is a reality to the motoring mathematics a lot of Longboat Key residents make on a daily basis. 

 "You don't need to take a two-ton vehicle out to get a bag of groceries or a cup of coffee," he said. 

When he's on the road, Penn said, he drives defensively, even though his car attracts plenty of attention. The little car accelerates briskly and can corner and dart from one lane to another like a sports car. But it has no side windows or doors, leaving the driver and a passenger feeling a little exposed, something to which Penn said he's beginning to get accustomed.

For Penn, the addition of the Arcimoto just makes sense in terms of practicality and world-view responsibility.

Oh, and there's that drawing a crowd thing.

Penn said that not long ago he was in another Longboat neighborhood and was flagged down by woman who said she was intrigued by the car.

"I gave her a ride and took her home, and she said, 'My husband would like a ride too,'" Penn recalled. "And when she opened the garage door, there's a convertible Bentley. So I said to her husband, 'I'll give you a ride, but you have to give me one.'"

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