Leonard Stobar is a modest feller. The guy sipping a coffee in this Santee gedunk came in second behind Elon Musk at the 2004 Thomas Edison Awards. Musk won gold for his design of the SpaceX rocket. Stobar won silver for a propulsion system he designed to power a surfboard through the waves, so you don’t have to get towed by a jet ski.
Stobar designs things. Right now, he’s sitting scribbling in a notebook. Not writing, but drawing some sleek machine. “Better,” he scribbles beside the drawing.
It turns out what he’s drawing is the C2C. “It’s an acronym for ‘Sea to Sea,’ or ‘Coast to Coast,’” he says. “This machine will make it from the Pacific to the Atlantic on one tank of gas.”
It’s a little three-wheeled car, built with the sleekness of a jet. “It’s all about drag,” he says. “I’ve got the coefficient so low it’ll do 120, 130 mpg. Or, for the electric version, I think I can get 1,000 miles on one charge.”
Stobar’s a distinguished-looking man. The kind you’d get to star in a 1940s Somerset Maugham movie. Modest, solitary, with a little fire burning inside. He has always been a designer. He started at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, where “half the world’s auto designers come from,” then ended up teaching design there himself. He wasn’t the first in the family: his dad had been behind the design of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Len went on to help Bill Lear design the Learjet Model 25. He pioneered animation for network TV. The guy’s a renaissance man.
There’s more. He’s an adviser to Ampaire, the world’s first electric plane-maker. “Our idea is you have a sealed battery pack in the belly of the plane. At each airport, you slide it out and slide in a fresh one.”
But his favorite project right now is a simple, powered fishing kayak. “Just like the plane, you’ll slide this power pack into the bottom. It’ll just pulse you along till you get out to your fishing grounds, then pulse you back, at 7, maybe 8 miles per hour, with no propellers to get caught in the weeds. I hope to be testing it on Lake Murray in a couple of months.”
Here’s the thing about Len: The guy’s 77, and he should have been dead 50 years ago. “I was 27,” he says. “The doctor called me in, says ‘You’ve got systemic lupus, very advanced.’ I said ‘How long do I have?’ He said, ‘Figure 18 months.’ If my landlord hadn’t insisted on driving me straight to UCLA where they had an experimental drug, I wouldn’t be here.”
You’d think, with all his incredible design work and inventions, he’d be rich. He shakes his head. “I’m an intuitive engineer,” he says. “I can design, build, engineer, but I don’t have the knack to make money. So even now, I have a very modest studio here in Santee.”
I ask if we can talk more.
“Of course. I’m here every day, one to three.”