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Avion Rocket on wheels
Rocket on wheels
Experimental car set world record for fuel

By Paul Dunwiddie Journal-American Business Editor

In last month's Unocal 76 Three Flags Econorallye a 1,700 mile run from Canada down to the Mexican border Western Washington's Viking A experimental car set a world record for transcontinental fuel economy: 88.2 mpg.

Craig Henderson's entry wasn't much of a challenge at 40 mpg, but then his bright-red Avion is more than an economy car. It's a rocket on wheels. The Avion accelerates faster than a new Corvette, grips curves as tightly as a Lotus and has a top speed in excess of 135 mph.

If that's not enough, Henderson will drop in a 200horsepower Datsun V-6 turbo, and you can see America at 180 mph. "It can be slightly awesome," he says.

Henderson bills the Avion as the "world's first commercial high-performance, fuel efficient sports car," and he hopes to make a lot of them from the Henderson Motor Co. headquarters in Bellingham.

SO FAR, the 28-year-old engineer has built just one, the prototype. But he has orders for two more, and the Unocal rally was the car's introduction to the world.

For $30,000 and an eight-month wait (each car is hand-built), the customer gets a light and exceptionally aerodynamic sportscar with a grin factor that could steal attention from a four-alarm fire.

The Avion's slinky body is eye-catching, but purely functional. No chrome. No fins. No unnecessary lines. In the wind, it's as slippery as fresh fish.

Dr. Michael Seal director of Western Washington's Vehicle Research Institute, which developed the Viking 4 says the Avion has a "lower aerodynamic drag than any production car, in the world."

The drag coefficient, which is how these things are measured, is .27. By comparison, Henderson says the ratio on the sleek new Corvette is closer to .4. Seal says it may be five years before any production car can match the aerodynamics of the Avion.

The other major contributing factor to its performance is weight or lack of it. The Avion weighs about 1,500 pounds, half that of a Corvette.

Henderson's prototype is powered by a four cylinder, fuel-injected Audi. The running gear is also stock Audi or Volkswagen, although customers can order various configurations of stock running gear and high-performance engines.

With smaller engines, Henderson figures the Avion will get 50 mpg in day-to-day use. It could get 75 mpg with a diesel engine, but Henderson refuses to put a diesel in a sports car. It just wouldn't be right, he says.

The rest of the car is custom: leather adjustable seats, oiled rosewood dash, sunroof, six-way speaker system with AM/FM stereo and power amp, semi-gullwing doors, plastic windows and concealed halogen high-beam headlights.

The Avion is a little over 14 feet long and 3.6 feet tall. It has just.5.5 inches of ground clearance.

Henderson has spent five years developing the car, and he figures he has some $100,000 invested in it, if you count his time.

The inspiration for the Avion came from Seal's program at Western Washington University, where Henderson studied to become an industrial-technology engineer. He still makes his living as a consulting engineer, but he is looking for $500,000 in venture capital to build five Avions and generate enough interest to start building 200 cars a month.

At next year's Unocal rally, Henderson hopes to generate more publicity by getting the Avion's fuel economy up to 90 mpg using narrow tires and a taller gear box.

Seal says 100 mpg is probably as much as any street-legal, reasonably performing two-seat automobile can be expected to get using today's technology.

The world record for fuel economy is 4,000 mpg, set by Ford of England. But that "car" weighed just 40 pounds and was designed for one, 65-pound driver. It operated at speeds around 15 mph.

Interestingly, that super fuel-efficient engine operated at only 12 percent to 20 percent efficiency. Internal combustion engines can reach 50 percent efficiency at full power. Large ship engines can approach that figure, and some automobiles can hit 40 percent efficiency under full power.