RICHMOND -- Frank Bletsch slid one foot into his 4-foot-9-inch aluminum car, then slowly eased the rest of his 5-foot-10-inch frame inside and grasped the mountain bike handlebars that steer the electric vehicle he made from scratch.
The Oakland resident was one of many individual owners exhibiting their goods alongside major car companies Saturday at the Green Drive Expo.
"It used to be only the Berkeley hippie fringe that was interested in alternative fuel vehicles," said John Mahoney, of Piedmont, as he checked out a row of electric bicycles. "Now the movement has multibillion-dollar companies behind it."
Indeed. The Green Drive Expo-Bay Area, presented by online car site Autobytel, drew 3,000 visitors and showcased such vehicles as the Ford Focus, Think City and Mitsubishi iMiEV all-electric vehicles, Toyota's plug-in Prius and the Ford Escape plug-in hybrid.
A gleaming blue all-electric Nissan Leaf, a car that has garnered 20,000 online reservations and is slated for December delivery, drew crowds throughout the day. The manufacturer's suggested retail price for the car is $32,780, though there are tax incentives and rebates for buying the car.
"I'm lusting after an electric vehicle," said Laurel Eber, of Richmond, as she ogled the Leaf. "We need to get off Mideast oil and at the same time use clean energy."
Or, as an electric car exhibitor's bumper sticker read: "Powered by American electrons." Its owner, Tom Keenan, of Alameda, bought his vintage 1970s-era yellow school bus-colored Citicar, a collector's item, on Craigslist.
Fittingly, the event was held in the city's Craneway Pavilion, a converted Ford auto assembly plant in a cluster of buildings that house such companies as solar firm Sun Power. Just outside the pavilion, the sun glittered on the waters of the Bay as folks test-drove vehicles including a 2012 PHV (for "Plug-in Vehicle") Toyota Prius prototype.
Hybrid vehicles such as the Prius run on both electricity and gasoline but cannot be plugged in. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have rechargeable batteries that can be plugged into an ordinary electrical outlet for charging.
"Richmond has historically had an industrial base for its economy and is moving aggressively toward a green economy," Mayor Gayle McLaughlin told the crowd. Other speakers included Chelsea Sexton, who was prominently featured in the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and is co-founder of Plug In America.
While interest in alternative fuels such as electricity, hydrogen and biodiesel is running high, obstacles to widespread adoption remain.
"The price of an electric car is what stops me," said Rosana Francescato, of San Francisco, who drove her Smart Car to the event. "Even with the rebates, it's upwards of $20,000. Once there are used electric cars, I'll buy one."
"We're currently in the Model T era of electric cars," Mahoney said. Concerns about issues such as range have dogged electric cars. Most such cars on the road today cannot go very far without a charge, though officials say the Nissan Leaf will have a range of 62 to 138 miles with a new battery.
"The important thing about this (event) is that it's making people aware of alternatives," Mahoney said.
Contact Janis Mara at 925-952-2671. Follow her at Twitter.com/jmara.