En-Tangoment: Elimination from the Progressive Automotive X Prize doesn’t leave Rick Woodbury sore about de feet

Elimination from the Progressive Automotive X Prize would seem a one-man car company’s bitter end. Instead, Rick Woodbury is loading up and going home to Spokane, Wash., smiling at visions of special freeway lanes for his little electric Tango T600.

Two to Tango? Rick Woodbury soloed during X Prize competition at MIS. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

The $10 million competition for vehicles to break the 100-miles-per-gallon barrier wrapped up its on-track testing Tuesday at Michigan International Speedway. Next, nine cars in three classes will head for dynamometer measurements at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. These survivors will undergo scrupulous validation while trying to reproduce the efficiency numbers posted on the big Irish Hills oval. Winners will be known in mid-September.

The Tango couldn’t achieve the minimum of 90 mpg during last week’s series of tests and failed to complete the 100-mile durability run last Friday. X Prize officials have a complicated formula for calculating the efficiency of entries.

Woodbury, president of Commuters Cars, entered his Tango in the alternative class for cars with two-seat, front-and-back, tandem-style layouts. He drove the car himself, did the mechanical work and spent lots of time schmoozing in the garage area.

“It’s been a blast,” said the 60-year-old former manager of a Porsche-Audi dealership. “The camaraderie here is incredible.”

He consoled those who expressed disappointment at the Tango’s failure.

“I’m a winner. Things couldn’t be better. People are all sad, but I tell them, ‘Don’t be sad.’”

Returning to Spokane, he’ll resume his regular role as designer, builder, and marketing chief.

Dismissing the Tango’s failure, he said he didn’t design the Tango for efficiency alone.

“It’s the fastest, safest, most tractable car for 90 percent of urban commuters.” He compared the currently prevalent type of automobile to “using a sledgehammer to drive nails.”

Jim Lorimer, spokesman for the alternative class favorite X-Tracer Team Switzerland, recently rode in the Tango’s backseat.

“I think the vehicle is sensational—I love it,” Lorimer said. “As much as I enjoy our X-Tracer, I can’t get enough of it. I’m very impressed with what he’s accomplished.”

The Tango might look familiar. Many saw it in January 2010 at the North American International Auto Show. Woodbury has spent much time in Michigan this year. The X Prize competition started at MIS on April 28. The next day, the Tango appeared at a kickoff ceremony for the X Prize that was held in Lansing. On that occasion, Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as recipients Woodbury’s personal pitch on behalf of his car.

Woodbury to Gov. Granholm on April 29: "Let's Tango!" | Baggy Paragraphs photo

Until now, though, only 11 of the narrow little fireballs have eked out of the production facility, Woodbury said. The actor George Clooney was customer number one. The price ranges from $121,000 to $166,000, depending on the kilowatt-hour rating a customer chooses for the lithium-ion batteries. All the energy cells offered in the Tango use an iron-phosphate chemistry for the sake of longevity.

The Tango has a carbon-fiber body. Its inner, high-strength steel cage is certified by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for 200-mile-per-hour travel, according to Woodbury. Four-wheel disc brakes helped the car to stop easily within the 170-foot limit from 60 miles per hour, as required in the competition. To protect the driver, massive steel bars are used inside the doors. Four-point safety harnesses keep driver and passenger secure in their seats.

“This is absolutely the most solid car I’ve ever seen other than a NASCAR (stock car), and with our car you don’t have to climb through the window.”

Woodbury operates Commuters Cars Corp. by the seat of his pants. | Baggy Paragraphs photo

At 3300 pounds, the Tango weighs 100 pounds less than a stock car. Interior amenities include a navigation system. Based on the Tango’s performance in the avoidance maneuvers at MIS, handling can be described as sharp.

“It corners like a son of a gun,” Woodbury said.

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brinn own Tangos. Brinn loaned his orange one back to Woodbury for use in the X Prize.

Woodbury is nearly finished building Tango number 12, which will go to a customer in England. When Commuter Cars employed a crew of eight, a Tango could be assembled in a month. But those employees were laid off, so the work proceeds when Woodbury can turn the wrenches.

An order for the 13th Tango has been received from a customer in Yakima, Wash. Yet Woodbury foresees the day when so many Tangos will exist, special Tango-only freeway lanes will be built in order to accommodate them.

Despite the fact that business is, well, steady at the present, the $2.5 million to win the X Prize’s tandem class sure would have been welcome.

But Woodbury offers a characteristically optimistic riposte for skeptics.

“I defy anybody to find a car that’s more fun to drive in a San Francisco traffic jam.”

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