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January 24, 2013 4:11 PM

Pony up $1,000, get an Elio t-shirt ... maybe a discounted 3-wheeled car

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Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News

A company called Elio Motors this month revealed plans to reopen the former General Motors plant in Shreveport, La., where it will pay 1,500 workers 50 percent more than new hires at GM earn to build $6,800, three-wheeled vehicles that get 84 mpg.

The company hasn't given out many more details yet, but I'm guessing the engines will be supplied by the Keebler elves, powered by dreams and delivered to the plant by unicorns.

Don't get me wrong: I hope Elio becomes a thriving half-a-car maker, creates thousands of good jobs and has millions of happy customers who then write condescending told-you-so letters to cynical journalists.

But until any of this actually happens, even Manti Te'o would probably say this sounds like a long shot.

A four-minute video on Elio's Web site calls the vehicle -- with only three wheels, it's technically not a car, which means that even though it has a roof and a door (yes, only one), drivers in some states would need a motorcycle license and have to wear a helmet -- a "fun and frugal revolution in personal transportation."

The video shows a green Elio cruising through suburbia and blowing through several stop signs, which makes me wonder whether the $6,800 price tag means brakes are an optional feature.

At one point, an attractive young woman crossing a street in front of the Elio stops to seductively flirt with the driver. "People will be looking at you with what will soon be known with Elio envy," the voiceover says.

Assuming that you, too, would like to pick up lonely women from crosswalks and make them sit alone in the tiny rear seat, Elio is asking for nonrefundable reservation deposits of $100 to $1,000. In exchange for this leap of faith, Elio promises a T-shirt, bumper sticker and a proportional discount on the car when -- if? -- it arrives.

The trust seeking buyers for GM's old plants says it looked into Elio and its business plan in depth before agreeing to the sale. But the sheer magnitude of what's required for new tenants to reuse old auto plants, particularly an unknown startup such as Elio, means these sorts of plans often fail to ever get off the ground.

The former GM plant in Delaware that Fisker Automotive bought in 2009 remains empty and unused today. And plans, announced at a 2009 celebration headlined by Bill Ford and Michigan's then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, to turn an abandoned Ford Motor Co. plant in Wixom, Mich., into a $1 billion renewable-energy park with more than 4,000 jobs evaporated.

A Ford statement says manufacturing of solar and wind-power systems would begin at the Wixom plant in late 2011. Instead, it's now being torn down, and part of the sprawling site likely will become a Menards store, which will be great for anyone who doesn't want to drive to the Home Depot and Lowe's less than five minutes away.

Elio acknowledges on its Facebook page that placing a reservation carries some risk:

"We are aware of past issues where people have placed 'refundable deposits' only to lose them outright. We chose to be very honest and transparent with you in that the reservation money you give to us is going to be used in the production of the Elio vehicle. We are offsetting your risk with the opportunity to be first in your neighborhood to own one of these exciting vehicles."

Elio says it plans to start building vehicles in Shreveport in mid-2014. But if that doesn't happen, you can at least be the first in your neighborhood to own a $1,000 T-shirt.

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