Local man plans to enter Auto X Prize

Bullfrog Boats owner has car that gets more than
100 mpg


Photo by Isaac Bonnell

Craig Henderson is currently working on the second version of the Avion, due out this summer, and plans to compete in the Progressive Automotive X Prize in 2010.


Craig Henderson is a pioneer of both land and sea travel.

As the owner of Bullfrog Boats, Henderson designed and patented a rigid-hull dinghy that is virtually unsinkable. Now in its 10th year of business, the company has sold more than 400 boats, which range from 10 to 21 feet in length.

On land, you can find Henderson driving around Bellingham in a sleek, red sports car that averages more than 100 miles per gallon. The kicker? Henderson built the car, called the Avion, with fellow Western Washington University graduate Bill Green in 1984.

Henderson and Green now plan to enter their 25-year-old car in the Progressive Automotive X Prize in 2010, a contest to find a commercially viable car that gets 100 miles per gallon. The Avion has already proven itself in the arena of fuel efficiency: It set a world record in 1986 by averaging 103.7 miles per gallon on a 1,700-mile trip from Mexico to Canada.

“We basically have a 25-year-old car that could win this contest,” Henderson said. “Now, I don’t really expect to win, but I do expect to have a lot of fun competing. And the publicity we’re going to get is going to help launch our company.”

This isn’t the first time Henderson and Green have sought to turn the Avion into a business. After completing the first model, the pair marketed the car as the next generation of vehicle for America. But at the time, fuel was cheap and SUVs were just emerging.

So the car sat idle.

“Lack of experience and money mothballed the project,” Henderson said. “I kind of ran out of steam — steam being energy, money and time. And I had another project I wanted to do — build a sailboat for myself.”

The pair then went their separate ways — Green is now a professor of industrial design at Virginia Tech University and Henderson runs his own company and lives on his sailboat. But recently they reunited to build a second Avion to compete for the X Prize. The eventual goal this time is to produce the Avion as a kit car for home hobbyists.

“Now my hopes are much more realistic and my skills as a businessman are better,” Henderson said.


Craig Henderson stands alongside the original Avion, built in 1984.


The ‘inventor type’

Henderson admits he is more of the “inventor type” than a businessman. After graduating from Western with a degree in plastics manufacturing and vehicle engineering, he soon became disillusioned with the corporate world. So he decided to strike out on his own.

“I wasn’t lucky enough to learn business from my parents. I had to learn it on my own,” he said. “So I’ve had a few business failures in the past. I’ve tried a variety of different businesses.”

Henderson excelled in designing boats and tried marketing several different models, but nothing stuck. At the same time, he was learning all the intricacies of owning your own business.

“There’s the product, there’s the personnel, there’s the market, there’s all that stuff and I never really got all of them right until I did Bullfrog Boats. Not that it’s perfect,” he said, “but it’s right enough to do business and provide me with some money.”

In fact, Bullfrog Boats has created quite a name for itself in the yacht tender and dinghy market. Sales at the Seattle Boat Show keep rising steadily, Henderson said, and he often sees his boats while out cruising the local waters.

The patented design is similar to an inflatable boat, but instead uses a rigid plastic frame with an aluminum hull underneath.

“It’s filled with foam so you can punch holes in it or shoot it and it still won’t sink,” Henderson said. “It’s like a boat with a flotation device. By its design, it’s also very stable.”

After attending regional boat shows in January and February, Henderson is now gearing up for another round of production before prime boating season begins later this spring. After boating season starts, however, orders are slim and Henderson spends most of his time on other projects, like the Avion.

“Bullfrog Boats has given me the time and money to do [the Avion] again,” he said. “The boat business is very seasonal. It gives me a lot of freedom.”

And this summer, when the sun and the sea beckon, Henderson will be on the road test driving the second generation of the Avion. He is currently building the second body and expects to have the whole car completed by this summer. In crafting the second car, Henderson is also making the necessary molds and tooling to gear up for producing a commercially available kit car.


Photo courtesy of www.100mpgplus.com

Craig Henderson drove the Avion to Portland and back in October 2008 to see if the car still performed well, which it did. Henderson said he averaged 113 miles per gallon on that trip.


Built like an arrow

The secret of the Avion isn’t really a secret. There’s no revolutionary technology or advanced fuel blend. In fact, the car runs on regular diesel.

Simply put, the Avion is built around two well-established vehicle concepts: an aerodynamic design and a lightweight body that is less than 1,500 pounds.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that our regular vehicles get such lousy mileage,” he said. “This technology has existed for a long time. Here’s the comparison: A Humvee is a brick and the Avion is an arrow. As you speed up, aerodynamic drag becomes a significant factor — and it goes up exponentially.”

Above 60 miles per hour, wind drag becomes so strong that it can significantly reduce fuel efficiency. So when Henderson takes the Avion on test runs, he typically travels around 55 mph for maximum efficiency.

At 3.5 feet tall, the low-riding Avion is definitely a sports car. The doors open up and forward like gull-wing doors, but this design is slightly different — Henderson calls them pterodactyl doors.

“One of the more difficult things on this vehicle is the fit and finish on the body, especially with the way the doors open and close,” he said. “Getting 100 miles per gallon is easy compared to making these doors fit and close properly.”

Though the Avion may have been ahead of its time in 1984, the sleek sports car look still turns heads whenever Henderson goes for a spin.

“When people see the Avion, they instantly smile. People love the car,” he said, adding that he often sees people taking pictures of the car with their cell phones. “It’s not that it gets 100 miles per gallon — that’s a bonus. They just really like the car.”


Avion stats

  • Dimensions: 43 inches tall, 63 inches wide and 174 inches long
  • Engine: 800cc diesel mid-mounted engine
  • Fuel economy: Record of 103.7 mpg
  • Weight: 1,450 lbs.
  • Passengers: 2 people and 15 cubic feet of storage space
  • Acceleration: Zero to 60 mph in about nine seconds.
  • Source: www.100mpgplus.com

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