LOS ANGELES -- Paul Elio was down to the Rolex on his wrist.
It was October 2010, and the Phoenix entrepreneur had emptied his personal bank account to pay the bills for his startup car company, Elio Motors.
Elio's wife had left him. A year late on his mortgage payments, Elio faced the prospect of losing his home too. He was getting ready to pawn the wristwatch -- his last possession of any real value -- when salvation came from the sky: A damaging hailstorm struck Phoenix, and an old friend gave him a job with his roofing business, providing Elio enough income to keep the startup afloat.
"There have been hard days, scary days, days when I didn't know how we would survive another minute," Elio, 51, a former engineer at Johnson Controls and CEO of the automotive consultancy ESG Engineering, told Automotive News as he recalled his brush with bankruptcy. "But I've never thought of conceding defeat. Ever."
Indeed, seven years after he founded Elio Motors to design a cheap, efficient three-wheel commuter vehicle, Elio is counting victories. Small ones, at least.
Last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the 15-person startup unveiled the latest prototype of Elio's three-wheeler, now outfitted with a 0.9-liter engine built to specifications by the German engineering company IAV.
The same week, the company got the green light from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to raise $25 million through online crowdfunding.
To date, 47,000 people have sent the company $100 to $1,000 over the Internet in exchange for the privilege of buying Elio's three-wheeler, which has a promised starting price of around $6,800 and a fuel economy rating of 84 mpg on the highway.
As much as a car, they're buying into a dream -- Elio's dream. And there's a lot of Paul Elio in the vehicle that bears his name, down to the speedometer and rev counter, which are mounted on rotating discs visible through holes in the gauges.
Elio modeled the design after his father's midcentury Lord Elgin wristwatch. If the Rolex reminds him of dark days, the Lord Elgin reminds him of bright ones.
"I can still see myself as a child," Elio said, "holding his hand and looking up at it."