Marcelo da Luz's low-slung experimental solar car seemed far more stylish than even General Motors' iconic '59 Chevy gull-wing design as he accelerated around the parking lot of Forest Ridge Elementary in Howard County yesterday before several hundred admiring children.
"It's like a race car. It's cool. It looks cool," exclaimed Dustin Windom, 11, a fifth-grader at the North Laurel school.
"If you take off the wheels, it would look like a submarine," said Jesse Rocco, also 11.
In fact, the native Brazilian told the kids and teachers that someone who had spotted him driving it in Alaska called 911 to report a UFO.
The students emitted a chorus of "ohs" when da Luz got into the cockpit, lying nearly flat on his back, clicked his seat belts into place, donned communications gear and had one of his three crew members lower the car's fragile-looking skin over him.
He took off briskly, driving three times around the parking lot before taking off for his next gig, on Capitol Hill.
The 41-year-old Toronto resident has been pursuing his dream of promoting solar power and saving the planet for more than a decade. Despite having no science or engineering background, he got the three-wheeled car built and has driven it across the continent from Buffalo, N.Y., to Alaska to Florida and up the East Coast - more than 17,000 miles, he said. He is accompanied by three volunteers driving a big GMC travel van that pulls a trailer for the odd-looking car, known as the Power of One.
The nearly flat upper surface has 893 solar cells, he said, that can absorb 900 watts of electricity, enough to carry him 300 miles on a sunny day or 130 miles at night. The car will hit 75 mph and does zero to 50 in six seconds.
The former flight attendant doesn't claim the car is a practical mode of transportation. There is no space for storage, and he said he was stuck for a month in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the sun refused to shine.
He needs help to lower the top when he's ready to drive or to raise it when he wants to emerge, and it can get very hot inside, because there's no air conditioning.
Mylar shields him from the heat of the solar panels. He uses motorcycle controls to steer and brake. The lower structural part of the body is made from polyurethane covered with fiberglass, he said, and the top with its solar panels must be raised several feet to enter or leave.
But the car has helped spur interest and technological innovations for better vehicle lights, low-resistance tires and more efficient electric motors, he said.
He's been touring the continent, stopping at schools and government offices, staying with friends of friends or acquaintances for more than a year, trying to push solar power.
"I want to save the planet, to inspire people," he said. He said he's sunk "everything I've ever made," or about $500,000, into the project, not counting the time and labor.
"I call myself stubborn," da Luz said.
An old high school friend of Don Patterson's, whose wife, Iris, teaches music at Forest Ridge, inspired the local family to put da Luz and his friends up for a few nights and have him show the car at the school.
"I think it's wonderful. It's a great science lesson for the kids," Iris Patterson said.
They also learned something about following a dream.
"The most important thing wasn't the building" of the car, which took two years just to plan, da Luz said. "It was the believing."