Mountain View Voice

News - June 4, 2010

Get laid off, start a car company

Downturn pushed Hong Quan to pursue his dream

by Daniel DeBolt

Like many in Silicon Valley, Hong Quan was working away at a tech startup last year when layoffs left him without a job.

"Why don't you start that car company you've been talking about?" he remembers his wife saying.

Quan had been dreaming for years of building a three-wheeled vehicle inspired by a concept car Volkswagen never made called the GX-3. And not just for himself — but for large-scale production. He decided to do just that.

Even since Quan came to Californian in 2000 he had worked at tech startups. At his last job, he managed corporate development at video game company Gazillion Entertainment. He reported to the CEO.

"I always thought I would do my own startup," Quan said. "I just thought there is no reason I couldn't be CEO."

With plenty of free time, substantial savings from working in Silicon Valley and a gainfully employed wife in support of the plan, "it seemed like the right time to take that risk," Quan said. Prong Motors was born.

Though Quan lives in Santa Clara, three Mountain View businesses were instrumental in building the now finished "Prong III" prototype in six months (The quick development was largely thanks to computer design software). The lead engineer on the project was former Lotus engineer Eric Gauthier at Suspension Performance on Old Middlefield Way. The chief fabrication officer was Eddie Irlanda of Applied Welding Technology on Wyandotte Street. And the man who built the composite body is Dan Bolfing of Contactscale, a NASA Ames Research Park based company that is building prototype body shells for various Silicon Valley automotive start-ups, including Kleenspeed.

The Prong III prototype uses the engine and running gear from a three-wheeled vehicle called the Can-Am Spyder. The difference between the two is that instead of the driver sitting upright, motorcycle-style, the driver sits down inside a cockpit with a steering wheel.

Why not just build a four-wheel car? Quan says that would subject the car to expensive regulations, including crash testing.

With a 10,000 rpm redline Quan says the vehicle is part motorcycle, part racecar. Basically, it's a good weekend toy, Quan said. It weighs 800 pounds and has a one-liter, 106 horsepower engine. Computer controls keep it from tipping over in hard cornering, he said.

The car was recently driven by late night TV show host Jay Leno for an episode of Jay Leno's garage, an online TV show inspired by Leno's love of cars.

"He said it was a fun vehicle," Quan said. "He's a good arbiter of taste."

Quan's biggest supporter is his wife and mother of their two small children, Wendy Quan. She's a marketing manager at Intuit, and her income has made the venture possible, she said.

"To see the excitement other people have when they see it, there's definitely a great sense of accomplishment," she said.

"He wakes up excited every morning," Wendy said of her husband. "He's doing what he loves to do."

Wendy said that with good planning, the venture has improved their relationship.

"It has definitely helped us learn a lot more about each other — how much risk we're willing to take," she said. "We support each other no matter what. I think that's definitely made us stronger."

Quan hopes to build about 100 vehicles a year, possibly in Mountain View. Prices will range from $10,000 for a do-it-yourself kit without an engine, $25,000 for a body-less version and $39,000 for a custom-built car with top-of-the-line components.

Hong hopes to sell some of the cars to celebrities and the rest to wealthier folks who haven't been so hard hit by the recession.

Hong is also considering the development of an electric version of the car.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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