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Doug Clark: Maker of tiny Tango aspires to drive invention into fast lane

The Tango, that cute made-in-Spokane electric car, was not necessarily designed for a made-in-Spokane lug like me.

At least the two-seater’s back seat wasn’t, anyway.

For the record, I had no trouble sliding behind the wheel of the ultra-skinny Tango, thank you very much.

But getting my, ahem, considerable mass into the vehicle’s rear chair was a bit like putting that diminutive glass slipper onto the foot of one of Cinderella’s goonish stepsisters.

Unlike those brutes, I’m proud to report that I didn’t give up.

I finally made it inside after only a few embarrassing grunts and groans.

Then Tango creator Rick Woodbury, a compact 64-year-old, got into the front seat. Soon we were buckled up and zipping – and I do mean zipping – around the streets of Spokane.

Rides like the famed Tesla have proven that electric doesn’t have to mean slow.

This baby’s a road rocket.

“Unequivocally the world’s fastest car through traffic,” boasts the claim on the Tango’s glossy brochure.

I believe it. And despite its narrow looks, the Tango is an example of rock-solid stability when speeding through curves.

On Wednesday morning I dropped in to see what was going on at the Tango manufacturing plant, located in the rear of a brick industrial complex at 715 E. Sprague Ave.

Manufacturing plant really isn’t the correct term, since there are only a dozen Tangos in existence and it has been several years since any of those were made.

There are reasons for such low production, Woodbury explained.

“If I have to build one car for one customer it will take me a year,” he said.

And let’s not ignore that little matter of the $240,000 sticker price.

That amount for a new Tango defeats the purpose if, say, you’re a greenie looking to wean yourself off fossil fuels.

Yet if Woodbury is discouraged he doesn’t show it in the least.

On the contrary, this likable guy oozes optimism.

The Tango, which has a 100-mile range between charges, is about something much bigger than cutting gasoline consumption. Rather, it is the answer to the global problem of vehicular slog caused by single-occupant commuting.

“I don’t give a crap about electric cars,” Woodbury added. The Tango “is a narrow car that happens to be electric.

“What I’m trying to do is to solve lane congestion.”

Just 39 inches wide and a bit over 8 feet long, a pair of Tangos can cruise side-by-side in one lane with room to spare.

And as for safety, Woodbury is quick to point out that the Tango’s custom-painted exterior is built around the sort of roll cage you’d find in a racecar.

“The fact that I can outmaneuver a motorcycle is an important factor,” Woodbury said.

“There’s no safer car in existence than the Tango.”

When it comes to breaking the Tango’s sales slump, there could be some good news brewing.

Woodbury said he has been involved in some encouraging discussions and meetings with New Zealand officials.

Auckland is apparently a nightmare of a commute for the many New Zealanders who live in the suburbs.

Who knew?

At stake is a potential order that would be a game-changer for the Commuter Cars Corp.

The son of a computer pioneer, Woodbury described himself as a high school dropout who never stopped daydreaming.

At an early age, Woodbury loved taking things apart and putting them back together.

That knack certainly came in handy in 1998, the year Woodbury decided to pump money he made from selling a boat into turning a Fiat 850 Spider into a battery-powered car.

A crude start, perhaps, but Woodbury was soon bitten by the electric car bug.

Today, the Commuter Cars Corp. looks like the sort of inventor’s workshop that you’d see in a movie, with parts, machinery, tools and technical manuals scattered everywhere.

Speaking of Hollywood, actor George Clooney bought the very first Tango, so named for Woodbury’s love of that dance.

A Tango also landed a small (nonspeaking) role in the movie “Robot & Frank.”

Another Tango was used in the pilot of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

And on Wednesday, Woodbury had the courage to turn his keys over to me.

That’s right. I got to drive a $240,000 Tango.

He didn’t even make me sign a waiver.

It did take a minute or two to get used to the close spacing between the brake and the gas (I meant juice) pedals. After that, the car drove like an absolute dream.

Power?

I could literally feel the horses just waiting to be unleashed.

“You can take it on the freeway if you want,” said Woodbury, who was riding in the rear.

I thought of letting her rip, too. That is, I did until I checked the rear-view mirror and saw the black-and-white police car prowling behind me.

“Think I’ll just make it a short hop,” I told my host before taking the next left and heading back slowly to Commuter Cars.

The last thing I need is to get stopped in something that looks like it just landed from Neptune.

Guess my Tango time will have to wait until the price drops.

Which could happen, Woodbury said. If his car ever reaches that magic mass-produced scale, he estimates the cost of a Tango might one day drop to an affordable $10,000 range ($10,000 battery not included).

I hope it happens. It’s impossible not to root for a guy who has dared to dream so big.

“It’s gonna go. I know it,” said Woodbury, before adding in one of those knock-on-wood tones …

“I just hope that it goes in my lifetime.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@ spokesman.com.


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