No Gas in the Tank

Bill Gingras has been trying to drive without fossil fuel

For 38 years, local inventor Bill Gingras will never get lost. The compass he has painted on the driveway points him in the direction of the outside world, while the large spherical globe on his front lawn denotes home base.
    Throughout his life, this man of invention has created his own direction. At 82, the owner of the first — or maybe second — all-electric Nissan Leaf in Chesapeake Country is still pointing the way to the future.
    He’s going strong, while a lot of the technology he helped create is obsolete.
    “I started back when a personal computer was only an idea, a fantasy,” Gingras says of his half-century career as a design engineer for technology and early computer development. “What we worked on then was called high tech but it’s hardly high tech today.”
    Now retired, he invents not for a paycheck but for pure pleasure.
    Abstract sculpture is his hobby, and his Chesapeake Beach home is his workshop. Metal sculptures fill the walls, and red lasers bounce across the off-white rug, entertaining the dogs.
    The furniture is his design and construction. He has wired his own lamps — after designing their shape and flexibility. His picture windows have remote-controlled blinds. His couch is mounted on a turntable. With a flick of a switch, it swivels so he can look out on the water. Or turn so he can look into his backyard. Or watch television.

No Gas

    Driving efficiency is one of Gingras’ specialties.
    During the gas crisis of the early 1970s, his desire to improve how things work spurred him to create a better automobile. Completed in 1974, Gingras’ one-of-a-kind electric car didn’t need any of the hard-to-come-by fuel.

Bill Gingras built his own all-electric car back in the ’70s. Eight batteries between the driver and passenger seats power the car, which got about 30 miles a charge. With no roof or door, Gingras hopped over the side each time he took it for a spin. The car, dubbed No Gas, now resides in the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

    “I designed and built it in the metal shop I had in my Rockville home,” Gingras says. The car was road ready but Gingras had to wait until the officials declared it road worthy.
    “Because it wasn’t built by a major manufacturer, the state had to send one of their engineers out to approve it.”
    When the car was stamped fit for the road, Gingras got tags, had No Gas insured and hit the road in his invention.
    “It would get 30 miles on each charge, so I drove it to work, 18 miles each way,” Gingras says. “I was able to charge my car during the day where I worked.”
    When the Gingras family moved to Chesapeake Overlook in 1980, the commute was too long for his invention, but the electric car wasn’t scrapped.
    “I drove it around Southern Maryland,” Gingras says. “People here got a kick out of it.”
    With license plates that read no gas, the car was powered by eight batteries between the driver and passenger seats and tops out at 40mph. No Gas has no roof or door, so Gingras had to hop over the side each time he took it for a spin.

Turning Over a New Leaf

    Late last year, Gingras turned over a new Leaf, retiring his invention in favor of Nissan’s entry into the electric car market.
    The Leaf, he reasoned, matches the innovation and efficiency of his 38-year-old car while improving on comfort, protection from the elements and safety.
    The Nissan Leaf is 100 percent electric: zero gas, zero tailpipe emissions. Instead of fueling up at the local gas station, Leaf owners refuel via a charging dock installed in their garage that reboots the Leaf’s batteries.
    That’s the main appeal of the car, starting at $35,200 before federal tax credits. The Leaf earned a five-star overall vehicle rating for safety in the New Car Assessment Program of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    As well as safe and fuel-efficient, the Leaf is sleekly nice to look at. Four doors and a hatchback make the car practical, while its heated steering wheel and outdoor mirrors provide a feel of luxury.
    It’s also still pretty rare. Leafs are made in Japan and sold there and, in very limited editions, in Canada and the U.S. Production of the cars at a Nissan plant in Tennessee is expected to begin late this year.
    By upgrading from his own invention to one of a new generation, Gingras is linking to the engineering of the future.
    “Based on today’s gas prices, my new car will go 40 miles on a dollar’s worth of electricity,” Gingras explains. “And with zero emissions, it’s more than efficient, it’s clean.”
    Gingras admits to missing his homemade car, but he enjoys the practicality of the newer model, also licensed as No Gas.
    “Rather than a 30-mile range, the Leaf has a 100-mile range,” he explains. He has a charger station in his garage. Public charging stations are becoming more widespread, but it takes three to four hours to fully repower the car, which isn’t always convenient. So routes have to be carefully planned.
    “I have not had to rely on roadside charging stations, which is good because they’re still few and far between in this part of the country,” Gingras says. “There are 30-minute charging stations in California, but not this far east.”
    So he’s invented a solution should he run out of power.
    “I belong to AAA,” he says. “They will tow your car up to 100 miles twice a year. So I can just call them. The towing is free with the membership, and they’ve told me they’d be happy to help.”

Making History

    No Gas is now parked in the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
    “Our executive director Roland Woodward heard about the car,” explains Catherine Scott, the museum’s collections and archive manager. “Roland went to look at it, fell in love with it and knew we had to have it.”
    The museum acquired No Gas in November and gave it its own parking space in the transportation gallery. Even in the museum, it’s a standout.
    “The gallery has a lot of old cars,” Scott says, “but just one other electric car made on a national level, not a one-of-a-kind.”

Bill Gingras thinks of his Nissan Leaf and earlier homebuilt electric car “…with zero emissions, it’s more than efficient, it’s clean.”

Perhaps.

Most electricity in the United States comes from fossil fuel-powered plants. Unless Bill’s electricity comes from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear sources, he’s transferred the emissions from his car’s tailpipe to a utility’s smokestack.

Albert McGlynn