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The little hybrid car that could

At Phila. Auto Show, a high school standout

One of the most impressive cars at this week's Philadelphia Auto Show doesn't come from Japan, Germany or Detroit.

It came from the auto shop at West Philadelphia High School.

The car - designed and built by students in the school's Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering - delivers more horsepower than some Porsches and gets gas mileage comparable to a Toyota Prius. It runs on fuel made from soybeans.

Last year, the car was the surprise winner of a competition for eco-friendly vehicles, the Tour de Sol. The students, hoping to prove their success was no fluke, will enter the car again this year.

They'll be back despite an effort by school district budget-cutters last year to eliminate the program. It was saved by an outcry from parents and area auto dealers, who see the program as a source of hard-to-find trained mechanics.
The high schoolers' engineering feat may have observers wondering why Detroit hasn't already made such a car.
"This is off-the-shelf technology, and we're not 180 I.Q. people around here," said Simon Hauger, a physics teacher who is the West Philadelphia automotive program's administrator.

"We're super low-budget," he said, so automakers "should be cranking them out.
"Who wouldn't want a cool sports car hybrid? "

The Motor City could have built one, but years ago, the Big Three domestic automakers misjudged where oil prices and consumer desires would be today.

President Bush, in his State of the Union speech last week, conceded that "America is addicted to oil" and encouraged research into alternative fuels and power systems such as hybrids.

Major automakers are showing several hybrids at the auto show, which opened yesterday, each developed with multimillion-dollar budgets.

The West Philadelphia team's budget was considerably smaller. "We've estimated that there's probably between $80,000 and $100,000 worth of parts in the car," Hauger said. That includes carbon-fiber body panels donated by Hexcel Corp., of Stamford, Conn., and wheels and tires from OZ Racing. Philadelphia-based refining company Sunoco gave $5,000.

Still, he said, for last year's campaign leading up to the Tour de Sol, his team and students spent about $25,000. That included building the car and incidentals, such as lodging costs on the way to the race in upstate New York.
"The Robin Hood Motel," Hauger said, laughing. "Use your imagination - it probably was as bad as it sounds. We're really low-budget. "

They raised the funds through Philadelphia Academies Inc., a nonprofit board that steers city high schoolers to career-focused schools and gets support from businesses and individuals.

The West Philly squad's car is based on a kit called the Attack, made by K-1 Engineering, based in Serbia and Montenegro. The kit's carbon-fiber body fits over the chassis and frame assembled from a K-1 kit and a Honda Accord donor vehicle, which the team modified extensively.

The students altered the frame to accommodate a 200-horsepower electric motor under the front hood. An upgraded 150-horsepower, turbocharged Volkswagen diesel engine occupies what would be the trunk on most cars.

To comply with Tour de Sol rules, the engine runs on "biodiesel" fuel: It's biodegradable and nontoxic, and has significantly lower emissions than petroleum-based diesel when burned.

The Attack's soybean-based biodiesel was made by students and Hauger in their West Philadelphia garage, Hauger said.

The car cotillion taking place in Center City this week will serve as a tune-up for the team's bigger goal: winning the Tour de Sol again in May. Last year, the West Philadelphia team stunned rivals at the contest for electric and low-emissions vehicles at Saratoga Spa State Park in New York, as it built the fastest, cleanest, and arguably best-looking car of the field. The team - with different students - also captured the crown in 2002 with an electric-powered Saturn.
But it is this week's show - attended by nearly a quarter-million visitors last year - that could give the program priceless visibility and attract corporate sponsors.

For individual students, it's a chance for exposure to recruiters for auto-technology schools and potential employers, not to mention basking in the oohs and ahhs of show attendees.

"It's good to be on the team," said Bruce Harmon, a soft-spoken 18-year-old who said he got one step closer to his dream of designing cars when he transferred to West Philadelphia High this school year.

Although the program developed an environmentally friendly hot rod that puts Detroit gas guzzlers to shame, the West Philadelphia program is handicapped by Philadelphia's chronic school budget woes.

"Almost all of the automotive programs in neighborhood schools have disappeared" in the city, said Ann Cohen, president of Philadelphia municipal workers union AFSCME Local 1637. Cohen chairs the nonprofit Philadelphia Academies Inc.; the union works to put the high schoolers in apprenticeship programs. Of the city's 59 high schools, five today have auto programs.

That might seem counterintuitive, given the shortage of trained auto technicians nationwide. The most commonly cited estimate is that 60,000 new technicians are needed in the auto-repair industry. The number is expected to hit 110,000 before the decade is out.

The West Philly program was on the budget chopping block last year, but the team's Tour de Sol victory and public outrage at the proposed elimination spared it.

"Everybody rallied together for the program," including sponsors Pep Boys, Sunoco, Central City Toyota, and Gary Barbera," Cohen said.

In the high school's neighborhood, the median household income is $21,300, about half the national average, with nearly a third of residents below the federal poverty line.

"The urban environment is challenging," said Hauger, who is in his 13th year of teaching. But projects such as the hybrid car make abstract class concepts real, he said.

"They're doing real problem solving. . . . I've seen cases where kids are marginal" academically, he said, "but this has given them the extra push to succeed. "

Alumni and at least one current member of the program have received jobs or scholarships as a result of their involvement in the program.

Tyson Drummond, this year's team captain and a senior, works part time as an apprentice in the city's fleet maintenance division.

Still, the auto program has a big shortcoming as a means of getting good jobs for its graduates: lack of certification by the National Automotive Technicians Foundation, or NATEF. That's the educational arm of the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which most consumers know simply as ASE.

The endorsement requires schools to teach core automotive subjects with expensive equipment and training modules.
Teachers and local auto dealers are clamoring for it.

"It's reprehensible that we don't have a NATEF-certified school" in Philadelphia, said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia.

High schools in surrounding counties, including Bucks County Technical High School in Fairless Hills, the Center for Arts and Technology campuses in Coatesville and Phoenixville, Delaware County Technical High School in Folcroft, Camden County Technical School in Sicklerville, and many others in the region carry the certification.

Last week, Philadelphia School District chief executive officer Paul Vallas agreed that it was sorely needed. In a meeting with the regional auto dealers' group, he all but ensured that Philadelphia vocational schools - starting with West Philadelphia - would get the certification over the next two years.

"We're actually looking at laying out a two-year plan to get all five of our automotive training programs certified," Vallas said.

He added, "Clearly, our premier program is the West Philly auto program. "

The NATEF certification is "another way of making our kids more competitive, another way of leveling the playing field, and of filling opportunity gaps," Vallas said.

On Thursday, a city Parking Authority flatbed hauled the team's finished, spiffed-up car to the Convention Center.
Hauger said he fantasized about what the students could do if they had the financial firepower of the colleges and corporate teams they compete against at Tour de Sol.

"It would be nice to get a corporate sponsor that could underwrite this" and throw money at their electrical problems and rough engineering until they were solved.

"That's what it would take. It would be nice. "

Contact staff writer Akweli Parker at 215-854-5986 or