The Corbin Sparrow was the clown car of tomorrowMon, 31 Mar 2014 00:00:00 -0700
The Corbin Sparrow doesn't so much resemble a car as it resembles an oversized Dutch clog left on the carefully manicured lawn of a modern art museum. It is a shape that causes grown men and small children alike to burst into instant, spontaneous, guffawing laughter. "How many clowns can you fit in it?" they might ask in between snickers. "You gonna go join the circus?" One ugly-car list likened it to a "big toe." In yellow, it represents a human nose. In red, as shown above, it could pass as a model of an organ for use in introductory med school classes.
By spending actual, hard-earned currency on this Sparrow, owner David Woolery -- who also owns an Ariel Atom, a Lotus Exige, and various Star Wars helmets that he wears while driving them -- pulled the automotive irony equivalent of walking into Urban Outfitters and buying a shirt with a meme on it.
"I can't believe you spent 6 grand on this," I told him.
"Well, yeah," he said, "because it's hilarious."
Your author considers running off to the circus, as long as there's one within 15 miles.
Built by Mike Corbin of motorcycle seat fame, the Sparrow was meant to be the three-wheeled city runabout of the future -- driven by the sort of mid-90s optimism that envisioned us riding around in near-silent bubble cars, grinning with the reassurance that our transportation efficiency had been honed to a single-serving maximum. In 1996, attendees at the San Francisco Auto Show sure believed it. At that time, the only electric vehicle was the GM EV1; Toyota's newfangled Prius was a Japanese-only exotic upon which we could wistfully gaze from afar. Corbin, who has a Sparrow tattooed on his upper arm, racked up $40 million in orders at $14,000 per car, then scrambled to actually build the things.
After a year, during which a few cars were repainted to make it seem like more were built -- a classic move from the "Jerry Wiegert School of Automotive Startups" -- the Sparrow began deliveries in 1998. It proved pretty popular. You could order one in every lurid neon color of the 1990s. One man painted flames on one of his four Sparrows, thereby making a flaming Sparrow. Corbin Sparrows chase the heroes in the third Austin Powers movie. Corbin built a hatchback variant specifically for Domino's Pizza, which promptly acquired the nickname "pizza butt," crude wordplay on a rival pizza chain's name. We are not making any of this up.
Corbin filed for bankruptcy in 2003 -- a victim of bad management, supplier issues, and the dotcom bust. Recently, an outfit named Myers Motors took over the design and renamed it the NmG -- short for "No More Gas." Its website includes Michael Jackson lyrics and not-unsubtle jabs at the Tesla Model S. It promises that if you can help crowd-fund a $13,995 electric car on little more than a few airbrushed drawings, you can reserve your own next-generation EV. Reservations were supposed to start being accepted last June.
But hey, at least the car gained another wheel in the past 10 years.
Blake Z. Rong
David Woolery doing his best Dr. Robotnik impression.
Corbin managed to crank out 289 Sparrows before closing shop. This is one of them -- one of 100 in this "jelly-bean" body style. Its 20-kilowatt DC motor produced the equivalent of 25 hp. Most of its 1,350-lb weight was due to crude lead-acid batteries -- this is primitive electric vehicle technology, the Windows ME of EVs. It takes 4-6 hours to charge at a 110-volt socket. The range, according to Woolery, is "shitty."
Open the single door to the left and climb in. The windshield looms right around your face like a sneeze guard. Practically in your lap is a Grant GT steering wheel, the ubiquitous choice for Craigslist special Chevy Novas and crumbly Volkswagen kit cars. Push the plunger forward, step on the thin sliver of a gas pedal, and whoosh! There you go, squeakily thanks to an indeterminate sound from the rear. For some reason, the Sparrow leans to the left a lot more than it does to the right. The turning radius sucks. Acceleration is there but only in a metaphysical sense. In the late 1990s, regenerative braking was a whizbang technology of the future. Therefore, the Sparrow's unassisted disc brakes make it feel like you're stopping a Disneyland Autopia ride, an analogy that, despite the gasoline irony, covers much of the Sparrow's driving experience. "Ever ride the BART train in San Francisco?" Woolery asked. "When you take off, it sounds just like that."
Driving the Sparrow at low speeds is kind of fun and also kind of fragile -- Woolery has never tipped it before and certainly doesn't intend for us to do it. Still, one can kind of see the nascence of electric motoring, starting from this Sparrow: the humming silence, the low center of gravity, the instantaneousness of what little torque there is. Thankfully, electric cars have evolved a lot since.
On nearby Russell Road, an otherwise tranquil suburban street, the speed limit is 40 mph. At 35 mph, the Sparrow's shrieking wail sounds like a teakettle going off in a Stuka dive bomber. So much for Woolery's assurance that the car would be "so quiet that all you hear are people laughing."
Blake Z. Rong
Separated at birth.
"Go on," he said, with a tinge of sarcasm behind his flippantly reassuring voice. "Take it up to 45, 50. It's freeway capable."
"I don't want to die in this," I protested.
"Yeah," he agreed, "That would be humiliating."
Woolery's plan is to update it with modern technology -- lithium-ion batteries, regenerative braking, a new paintjob that mimics the Arena Red of his 1996 Porsche 911 Carrera, of which the Corbin's curvy nature is reminiscent, said Woolery -- and return a range of over 100 miles. Then, he plans to sell it for $15,000. "They're collectibles," he swears. People buy these things and keep 'em running. Some even drive around with no fear of shame or ridicule. They are made of stronger stuff than we are.
As for David Woolery, we're talking about a man who once acquired a barely-running 1966 Porsche 912 and flipped it for enough to buy the 993-generation Porsche parked next to it. If he could flip a shoe for five figures, it might make Carrie Bradshaw leak a solitary tear of pride from her Botoxed eyelid. Woolery deserves to be president of the owners' club. He's got our vote.
By Blake Z. Rong