Greg Johanson Builds a Solar Flattop for Desert Cruising

updated 07/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 01:00AM

It's long, it's low slung, and it whooshes down the road like a soft breeze. Dubbed the Sun Runner, it is reputedly the world's fastest solar-only car. And how fast is that? Well, says its builder-driver, Greg Johanson, beaming, "She's been clocked at 24.7 miles an hour."

That kind of speed hardly challenges the family sedan, let alone a Ferrari. But then the Sun Runner has many endearing qualities. It's silent running. It doesn't pollute. And as long as the sun shines, it will get all the miles you want on no gallons of gas.

Sure, there already are a dozen or so experimental cars that employ solar cells in one way or another. All use the cells to recharge batteries, which in turn power the vehicles. The Sun Runner, however, is unique: It has no batteries. Instead, its 96 square feet of photovoltaic cells can catch enough light to produce one kilowatt of electricity at peak efficiency, enough to power the $20,000 car directly. "You want to park a solar car in your front yard," Johanson says. "The Sun Runner can squeeze out enough electrical power to run your home."

Obviously, solar cars work better in sunnier climes. And indeed, the Sun Runner slows down when passing under bridges, and it definitely should avoid long tunnels. It also is affected by fog, smog and clouds. Yet, even after sunset, all is not lost. As a stationary power plant, the Sun Runner can collect enough energy from moonlight to drive a blender for mixing margaritas. "We've had some really good parties," says the inventor, a bachelor.

"Oh, I know I have a silly hobby," admits Johanson, 28, who is a solar energy fanatic. "I spent my own money to build this car. It's my Porsche, my Mercedes. I built the Sun Runner because I'm committed to showing people just what solar energy can do."

A self-described Valley Boy who grew up in suburban Los Angeles, Johanson laughs easily and occasionally swears like the sailor he once was. "I first became interested in solar energy in the Navy; we used it for transponders that communicated with submarines," he explains. After the service he returned home in 1978 and "did hot water" (passive solar heating and cooling) systems for homes and offices. Now, through his Solar Electrical Systems company in Northridge, Calif., he designs photovoltaic power sources for boats, RVs and telecommunications.

About four years ago Johanson met Joel Davidson, who migrated to California after spending 10 years raising horses in Arkansas. "There the nearest power line was more than a mile away, and that's how I really got interested in solar," says Davidson, 41 (recently married to a UCLA research chemist). Johanson and Davidson decided to team up in business. "First we went to community fairs selling solar toys—music boxes, calculators, bells-and-whistle-type stuff," says Greg.

And the Sun Runner? The experts said it wouldn't work. Without energy stored in batteries, the problem was to produce a powerful enough jolt to get the vehicle rolling from a standing start. But a device called a power processor, developed by Arizona engineer Bradley O'Mara, gave Johanson and Davidson the start-off push they needed. In April the Sun Runner was an attraction at San Francisco's Future World Expo '85.

The Sun Runner isn't the sort of car one drives down to the shopping center. It is only a single-seater and, at 20 feet long and five feet, five inches wide, it is hard to park. "We've developed a new vehicle," says Johanson. "You'll see it at the 1986 Vancouver World's Fair." That one, he promises, "goes 65 miles an hour and burns rubber."

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