At first glance, it looks like something from the movie Roger Rabbit. You’re driving along and you notice a giant, green cartoonish insect traveling the opposite lane. But wait. No. That’s an actual vehicle, and it’s holding its own in the traffic. If you drive around Asheville often, you will see this vision sooner or later, along with its 68-year-old driver, Bill Curtis. He is the happy owner and driver of Asheville’s very first ELF.
It’s not the magical little creature we know from folklore. ELF stands for “Electric, Light, Fun.” It’s an OTV or Organic Transit Vehicle, and it was created by Durham, N.C.-based company Organic Transit. It’s basically a recumbent tricycle with a protective shell. Legally classified as a bicycle, it can be driven wherever bikes are allowed. It has an electrical assist, so if you need to make it up the hill — or are just plain tired of pedaling — press the button, and whoosh, a surge of power kicks in.
Thanks to the solar panel on top, seven hours in the sun will get you about 20 miles, depending on driving conditions. The battery pack gets the same mileage after a one-hour plug-in. The ELF’s polycarbonate shell keeps the rain off, and the plastic windshield apparently doesn’t need wipers. Curtis claims he’s stayed quite dry in downpours, even though the side windows aren’t covered. You can legally travel up to 20 mph on the ELF’s power assist. The vehicle weighs 130 pounds and comes in four colors: wasabi green, mango, silver and white. Curtis’ wasabi version gives the vehicle it’s whimsical, cartoonlike quality, especially when he wears his hot pink T-shirt and red bike helmet.
So how did Curtis become the first ELFman of Asheville?
Not long ago, I happened to overhear Nancy, his wife of 48 years, talking with a friend.
“Well,” she said, “after you die you’re not allowed to drive.”
What? Of course not, I thought. How could you drive?
Nancy clarified, saying that if you clinically die and return to life, you’re not allowed to drive for the next six months. Her husband Bill had such an experience — a few, in fact — due to an arrhythmic heart condition.
“His heart just stops,” she says.
It first happened two years ago, when this very active, otherwise healthy man of 66 was playing softball.
“I was on second base,” Curtis says. “Someone hit the ball, and I crossed home plate, crashed into the fence and went down. I woke up in the hospital two days later. They told me I’d had a cardiac arrest. ‘Who says?’ I yelled. I was angry. I was out playing soft ball, having a good time, and the next thing I wake up with all these tubes and IVs and monitors stuck in me.”
The diagnosis was Sudden Cardiac Death.
“The cardiologist had never seen a case like mine,” Curtis says.
His condition is called Ventricular Fibrillation. But thanks to modern medicine, and an internal defibrillator that will jolt his heart into action if it stops, Curtis is able to enjoy an active life. After six weeks, he was back on the softball field.
Everyone was hoping that the initial cardiac event was a one-time situation. But when it happened several more times, Curtis decided that it was too dangerous to drive. Not an easy thing for an active man who values his independence.
But hey, why let a pesky little habit of dying cramp your style?
So Nancy researched alternative modes of transit. That’s when she found the ELF. It was an added plus that these little vehicles were invented and produced locally in North Carolina. Nancy was especially happy about the “dead man’s button.” When you’re using the electric assist and take your hand off the power button, the vehicle stops, unlike a car. And it won’t fall over, like a bike.
The couple drove to Durham in April, where Curtis test drove an ELF. The couple ordered one on the spot, but their vehicle wasn’t ready until late July. Nancy drove a U-Haul to Durham to pick it up, and the rest is history.
So how does Curtis like his ELF?
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I can ride to stores and do the shopping.” He shows me the lockable storage bins in the back. “I go to UNC Asheville and West Asheville. Everything around here is about six miles.”
Bill Curtis may own the very first ELF in Asheville, but it seems likely that the trend will catch on. With leg, solar and battery power — the ELF is great way to get around, stay healthy and save money on gas and car maintenance. And it’s saving the environment as well.
Last but not least, it’s a conversation piece.
“People are always coming up, commenting, noticing me when I drive by, giving me the thumbs up. Once a bunch of kids followed me down Haywood. ‘That’s awesome,’ they yelled. ‘Where’d you get it?’”
Curtis parked his ELF in the front of the apartment complex where he lives while we sat on the porch talking. Sure enough, three different groups of people wandered up and surrounded the bright green vehicle, gazing at it. Some of them even took photographs.
“You must be quite a celebrity all of the sudden,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answers, rather sheepishly. “But I don’t want to be a celebrity. I just want to get around.”