Dave Peichel, an electrical engineer for Medtronic, drives a Geo Metro. And he couldn't be prouder of it.

His is no ordinary little economy ride. Peichel converted it himself to run on 100 percent electricity.

Peichel is an officer of the 2 1/2-year-old Minnesota chapter of the Electric Automobile Association, a motley group of more than 60 area drivers who are charged up about the broader future of their passion -- even as the financial distress of the big three U.S. automakers casts current plans for mass electric car rollouts in doubt.

"The advantage of hybrids and plug-ins is here to stay," Peichel said. "If Detroit can't deliver, Toyota and others will."

Perhaps, but Peichel and his pals will have gotten there first. At a recent club meeting at the Electric Vehicle Store on Excelsior Boulevard across from Trader Joe's, the true believers gathered for some Tater Tot hot dish, car talk and a few peeks under several motorless hoods. Unlike most parking lots full of gas-guzzling, air-polluting trucks and minivans, this one was full of mostly tiny cars, some fitted with solar panels, some three-wheeled, as well as fabulous homemade contraptions such as James Black's four-wheeled electric bicycles.

Michael Shoop of St. Louis Park is on his third Corvette, a '78. But it's his first electric one, and it runs on 13 lead-acid batteries in lieu of a motor.

"My first two were such money pits," he said, "but this motor only has five parts -- which means far fewer things can go wrong -- and it's good for 1 million miles."

As for how much this green hot-rod labor of love was setting him back? "My wife said I had to do it for no more than the cost of a new Prius," he said. "I'm still under budget."

He probably wouldn't be had he bought a lithium battery pack, which is about four times more expensive than the $2,700 a lead-acid pack costs. But Peichel said that with the increased number of cycles lithium provides, "it pretty much evens out."

Years ago, these do-it-yourself amateur mechanics might have seemed like a geeky splinter group. But as auto manufacturers around the globe have begun to make their own versions of electric cars, these guys seem more like prescient early adopters.

Nancie Hamlett, one of the club's handful of women members ("We want more!" say the guys) bought her 2006 Zap Xebra for $10,800 a year and a half ago. She figures she saves a gallon of gas a day using her Xebra, with a top speed of 40 miles per hour, for her work commute, errands and other short city trips.

"I really did it for environmental reasons," she said. "But the savings are nice, too, and it's fun to be out front on this, what I hope will be a big trend."

Just when that trend will take off in the United States is questionable, with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler all in bailout-begging mode, putting plans for such electric efforts as the Chevy Volt in limbo.

"There's a lot of angst waiting for the car manufacturers to deliver," Peichel said.

Charge it, please

"If you don't want a lot of attention, don't get an electric car," said Carl Gulbronson, the evening's host and owner of the recently opened Electric Vehicle Store. "People will follow me up my driveway and say, 'I'm not a stalker, but what is that you're driving?'"

The three-wheeled Zap Xebras start at $12,500 at the store. Gulbronson says he's trying to stock any electric car he can, but due to factors ranging from limited or delayed production to high costs, it's been tough.

He offers free recharging for plug-in cars at his Excelsior Boulevard store, as well as his other shop, Edina Bike & Sport on Valley View Road. "I like to say I'm supporting the industry, but at a penny a mile, it's not that big a deal," he said.

Gulbronson's efforts to get legislators to take electric cars seriously include lobbying them to change tax-credit laws for early adopters. He's also trying to get a bona fide space at this year's Minneapolis Auto Show in March. "Last year I just got a little booth," he said.

"Once you show people that you can make these things in your garage, I think more of them will join us," Peichel said. "But it's a majority of people feeling like this that we need."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046