With U.S. natural gas supplies surging, a Des Moines, IA, automobile entrepreneur says he is only a few months away from importing and converting a Chinese-made passenger car, the Noble, to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.

Gabus Automotive President Gene Gabus would not tell NGI Wednesday how much he is prepared to invest in the venture, but he is convinced that if he can sign enough contracts with auto dealers and fleet operators, beginning with those in the Caribbean, he will find a way to meet the more stringent U.S. import requirements and begin bringing thousands of vehicles to the United States for between $11,900 and $12,900.

Gabus said he has two factories established to convert vehicles to run on CNG and he is “a month and a half” from getting final certification from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “We’re in the final testing now to get the EPA certification,” he said.

He needs to import four more Nobles from China to crash-test in Iowa. Initial imports will enter Canada because he said he is still about six months away from being able to bring in the vehicles to the United States. Gabus has facilities in Iowa and Nebraska for doing conversions, and he has interest from several different parties in rural areas in each of those two states to open conversion facilities, he said.

The vehicles are produced in China by Shuanghuan, which Gabus said he assumes is partially owned by the Chinese government. The company produces SUVs, four-door sedans and small pick-up trucks, all of which the Iowa retailer eventually wants to import for conversion to CNG and/or for dual fuel vehicles for markets that will accept them California, for example, will not, Gabus said.

An Iowa partner of Gabus’s and a Chinese-based company represent the Iowa retailer’s interest in China.

Even though the Nobles resemble the European-made, small two-door rear-engine “Smart” cars, Gabus said they all carry four passengers with front-wheel drive and a front-mounted engine. “Nobles are quite a bit bigger with larger tires,” he said.

Dating back three years, Shuanghuan has been the target of legal action in Germany by BMW that has resulted in the Chinese manufacturer at one time being prevented from selling its SUV, called “CEO,” in Germany. The German automaker claims the Chinese model infringes on BMW’s X5 design. Shuanghuan also allegedly has been threatened with legal action from the Smart Fortwo makers.

In China the Noble is an electric vehicle and Shuanghuan also makes a separate electric vehicles, Gabus said. “I can buy direct from them, and I am looking to do that once I have all my crash testing done.”

There are a number things that Gabus has to modify on the Nobles to get them to meet U.S. crash test requirements, the biggest being air bags. “We’ve done a lot of things, but they are all minor,” Gabus said. “There is nothing in the crash testing that says we can’t bring this car over here.” Seat belts have to be changed because the Chinese belts don’t meet U.S. standards. None of the necessary changes are related to the structure of the vehicles, Gabus said.

Gabus sources his conversion kits from Autogas for America and Stuart Technologies.

“We’ve done all of our testing with EPA, and everything has been fine. So now we’ll do all of our final testing. He cited the example of a large global physical security company that has close to 100,000 vehicles each of which covers 75 miles a night going from one warehouse to the next. “The Noble takes only one person, and if it is converted to CNG, the security firm cuts its fuel expenses in half because this vehicle will get the equivalent of 45 to 50 miles per gallon on compressed natural gas,” he said.

With the relatively low cost of the cars and the cost of fuel (equivalent of $1.80/gal of gasoline) Gabus said expects fleet operators and individuals to flock to the vehicles and for existing auto fueling stations to put in CNG dispensing outlets to service these vehicles.

Rejecting any “government money,” Gabus said he and a partner are financing the venture “on our own, and we’re going to make it work. Can I guarantee it will succeed? No. But I am confident it will. We can import as many as we want to, but we will not do so without orders [from dealers and fleets].”

So far, Gabus has only one converted CNG-powered Noble in his Des Moines dealership. Next year he hopes that is a different story.

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