FuelMaker Assets Finally Find a Buyer, Natural Gas Cars Still Stalled

phillbanktruptUpdated: FuelMaker, the beleaguered firm that made natural gas vehicle fueling stations for home users dubbed “Phill,” has finally found a buyer — well, its assets have. American Honda, the U.S. division of Honda (s HMC), which partly owned the decade-old Toronto-based company, has been trying to sell the firm for months — expending “considerable time and effort,” as American Honda put it recently in their statement. Meanwhile FuelMaker ceased operations and started bankruptcy proceedings in April. Well, this morning American Honda says a subsidiary of the automotive holding company Fuel Systems Solutions (s FSYS) has bought up the assets and IP of FuelMaker for $7 million an undisclosed sum (it’s got to be very low — it was previously selling for $17 million).

Despite FuelMaker’s best efforts, the natural gas vehicle distribution businesses just failed to take off. The device compresses natural gas from home gas lines, takes about four hours to fill an empty tank after a 50-mile drive (yawn), and costs between $5,500 and $6,000 (sticker shock). But the biggest barrier is clearly that natural gas vehicles are few and far between — Honda’s Civic GX is about the only consumer natural gas car around and can only be bought for $24,590 in select locations in California and New York. There’s more natural gas cars in city and enterprise fleets (AT&T plans to purchase 8,000 of ’em), but still the market is nascent.

My guess is that in the long run the fate of Phill is up in the air. In a statement, American Honda said that it “fully expects” Fuel Systems Solutions to “both continue the production and sales of the home natural gas refueling appliances, as well as honor service warranties for existing customers.” But that seems more like lip service than anything else.

American Honda seems particularly concerned about not appearing to be the “Who Killed the Electric Car” of the natural gas vehicle world as a few Phill fans and FuelMaker employees started pointing fingers at Honda after FuelMaker ceased operations last month. The tone of this article on The Auto Channel, “Honda Suddenly Kills Fuelmaker In Stunning Move That Outrages CNG Movement,” sums up those claims, and also suggests that Honda has been stifling production of the Honda Civic GX in the same way that GM (s GM) pulled back from its first electric vehicle lines.

Natural gas distributor Clean Energy Fuels (s CLNE), where T. Boone Pickens is a director and the largest shareholder, had been trying to buy FuelMaker last year, but told us that Honda had stalled the deal by withholding financial information.