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Wheels: Stinging Endorsements

Marco R. Della Cava

Ronn Maxwell grins as he hands over the keys to his new car, the Ronn Motor Company Scorpion. Then Maxwell, a barrel-chested 57-year-old whose ostrich-skin boots and smooth drawl betray his Texas origin, drops into the passenger’s seat. 

When I turn the key, the Scorpion releases a vicious wail that, as the drive continues, never dips below a menacing growl. Without much fuss the car rolls away from its starting point, the far end of an empty picnic-area parking lot on the outskirts of Sacramento, Calif. But as the revs climb, many of the picnickers turn to look at us. It soon becomes clear that when you drive a Scorpion, you invite the type of attention normally reserved for rock stars.

On the roads around Sacramento, the Scorpion, though it is only a prototype, feels tight in the turns, thanks mainly to its wide stance and sticky tires. Torque is abundant, making fast and furious bursts that are as effortless as wiggling your big toe. At a stoplight, a bug-eyed man in a car next to ours leans across his female companion in the driver’s seat to get a better look at the Scorpion. As he snaps a photo with his cell phone, he asks, "What is that?"

Maxwell responds in a tone that suggests he has witnessed this type of reaction before—which he has. The man with the cell phone apparently sees visions of dating conquests in the Scorpion. "I bet you could get any girl you wanted with that car," he says.

Maxwell laughs. "Son," he says, "Freddy Krueger would do alright if he had this car."

But the Scorpion is more than just what the admirer at the stoplight might call a "chick magnet." Even the standard version of this car is powerful (400 hp), fast (180 mph), and, given all that power and speed, surprisingly fuel-efficient (40 mpg). "We did it because we like cars," says Maxwell. "We did it to make a statement about how an automobile can be both good-looking and fuel-efficient."

A few hours before my drive, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the wheel of this low-slung beast. Schwarzenegger’s test-drive—the reason that Maxwell brought the Scorpion here from the company’s headquarters in Horseshoe Bay, Texas—was part of Ronn Motor Company’s publicity thrust. The campaign is promoting the car’s hydrogen-injection system, the key to the relatively miserly gas consumption of its engine. "The governor said to me, ‘This is what I like, the wide [rear],’" Maxwell says with a laugh.

The prototype on display in California’s state capital is the deluxe edition, which is priced $75,000 higher than the $175,000, 400 hp standard model. "It goes on a diet, slips on ceramic brakes, and gets a horsepower boost to around 650," says Maxwell of the upgrade. He promises that production will be limited to 200 cars a year, and says he has already secured down payments for two dozen Scorpions and requests for many more. "The economy right now obviously doesn’t help, and guys like bond traders are thinking twice about buying cars like mine," he says. "But I’ve got over 200 people on a waiting list right now, so I think we’ll be OK."

Awaiting delivery of the first Scorpion is Randy Pipkin, a trucking-company owner and car collector who lives in the same community as Maxwell, some 45 miles outside Austin. "I’m so excited I can’t see straight," says Pipkin, who will add the Scorpion to his collection of classic Thunderbirds, Corvettes, and Camaros. "I love that it has an Acura engine, which will make it easy to service. And as a guy who runs a fleet of big rigs, I’m conscious of fuel issues, so I love that it has this hydrogen system, which could well be a big solution for the future. But mostly, when I looked at it I got the same thrill as when I see a Porsche or Ferrari."

Maxwell knows something about those two marques: Having spent the better part of his adult life working as a mechanic specializing in Ferraris and Porsches, he says he grew to respect the former and adore the latter. But, he adds, "I also felt that one day I’d have to make my own car." 

A trip to China a few years ago inspired Maxwell to pursue that goal. "Do you know there are 940 cars for every 1,000 Americans, but only eight for every 1,000 Chinese?" he asks, not waiting for an answer before continuing. "When I heard that, I knew I had to come up with something other than a normal, gas-burning engine." He theorized that if the car-ownership rate in China ever reached that of the United States, the consequences could be disastrous for the planet and its gasoline supply.

The Scorpion evolved from idea to prototype in just 13 months. For the vehicle’s critical power-train components, Maxwell purchased thousands of Acura engine parts from a Texas car dealership and then charged his friend Damon Kuhn, who serves as Ronn Motor Company’s COO, with building an efficient engine out of them. "It took about six months to really get that [hydrogen-injection] system right," says Kuhn, who likens the effect of the hydrogen system to a cleaner-burning nitrous boost. "A lot of people have played with the hydrogen-injection concept, but it tends to overheat and overamp if you don’t get things just right," he explains. "You can risk running too lean and frying your pistons in seconds."

The heart of the Scorpion’s system is a unit, not much larger than an aftermarket stereo, that injects hydrogen into the car’s cylinders. Kuhn estimates that the system produces a 25 percent boost in both fuel economy and horsepower compared with the stock Acura engine.

Besides addressing the engineering challenges—such as getting the car’s parts and electronics to work with each other—Kuhn and his team also had to meet a range of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, including one that required the engine to revert automatically to stock operation in the event of a malfunction.

Having succeeded on those counts, the Ronn Motor Company, in addition to creating a fast and fuel-efficient car, may have created an impetus for larger carmakers, says Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst for the environmental activist group Natural Resources Defense Council. "Something like this could spur the development of high-efficiency vehicles for the masses," he says. "Any way you look at it, 40 miles per gallon is impressive for a car that has 400 horsepower."

While Kuhn and his team worked on the Scorpion’s mechanicals, Maxwell sketched the car’s sinuous shape. He gave his drawing to computer-game designer Jonathan Gryphon, who spent the next three months creating a CAD (computer-aided design) version of Maxwell’s vision. Maxwell then leapfrogged the clay modeling stage of development and instead brought the design to the auto artisans at Metalcrafters, a Fountain Valley, Calif., company that specializes in building vehicle prototypes, among other ventures. 

Back in the picnic-area parking lot near Sacramento, the finished product sits before us with its top down. The Scorpion’s shape displays design elements that evoke Ferraris (massive side-intake vents), Lamborghinis (scissor doors, raked side-view mirrors, and rear wing), and even McLarens (minimal ground clearance). The car is long and wide, but the engine, which is located under the rear bonnet, is fairly compact, and there are relatively few components under the front hood. Consequently, the Scorpion’s interior—production-model interiors will include a high-end audio system from Kenwood and heated leather-and-carbon seats—offers plenty of space for the driver and passenger.

As for the exterior, in addition to a full complement of LED and neon lighting, each car can have a unique paint scheme conceived by its owner. The prototype is the color of root beer, though Maxwell says that at night the color resembles milk chocolate. He calls the color Alexis Gold, after an acquaintance, and says it came to him in a dream. Why not? That story does not seem any more implausible than the Scorpion itself.

 

Ronn Motor Company, 512.879.6293, www.ronnmotors.com

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