When I was younger I was adamant about not owning a car. My environmental fervor had me riding my bicycle everywhere. However, as I got older the winters seemed to get longer and the hills steeper. Reality set in, and I realized it might be time to become a car owner. Yet being the environmental fanatic that I was, I didn’t want just any car, I wanted an electric car. The problem was this was 1994, when “hybrid” meant a weird animal like a liger or a beefalo and a “leaf” was something you found on a tree.
Fortunately I worked for a renewable energy training organization, Solar Energy International, and was aware of like-minded environmental fanatics and gear-heads that were similarly into electric vehicles. I called up Mike Brown and Shari Prange, of the electric car conversion company ElectroAutomotive. I figured there were others out there who would like to learn how to convert their car to electric, so we organized an Electric Car Conversion workshop in which I would be the lucky recipient of the class project.
Brown and Prange specialized in conversion kits for VW Rabbits. Coincidentally, a neighbor of mine had a bright yellow 1983 Rabbit convertible with a blown engine that he was willing to sell for cheap. I was on my way. Brown and Prange came out to Colorado and a week later, with the help of ten students from around the country who wanted to build EVs of their own, I had the first electric car in the region.
The kit included an Advanced DC motor, controller, potbox, battery charger, DC/DC converter, vacuum brakes, battery racks, ammeter, battery state-of-charge gauge, and all the nuts, bolts, and tools needed for the conversion. We also installed sixteen six-volt 125-amphour lead-acid batteries. The 96-volt battery pack took up a large portion of the trunk and weighed almost 1,000 pounds. The 110-volt battery charger was installed within easy access in the trunk. While a 220-volt charger would have charged the pack faster, it would have been bulkier and heavier, and a lack of 220-volt outlets would have made recharging difficult.
The car had a range of about 50 miles. The on-board charger meant I could plug in anywhere that had a 110-volt AC outlet, but it took about 8–10 hours to recharge the batteries. That pretty much meant limiting my daily driving to less than 50 miles. This was fine for getting around town, not to mention leading the occasional parade, which I was asked to do often. Driving around town was a gas (pun intended) as people were shocked to see a car that they couldn’t hear, and were even more astonished to learn that I only had to visit gas stations to occasionally fill my tires with air.
Many people, even though they thought it was an interesting experiment, were skeptical that an electric car was a worthwhile endeavor. What if I wanted to go for a road trip? Admittedly, my occasional longer trips meant taking public transportation or borrowing a friend’s car.
The one time I drove over 25 miles to go somewhere—and thus beyond the best-case 50-mile roundtrip range of my Rabbit—was to an environmental conference in Aspen, Colo., to showcase the car. I left it there overnight in the parking garage to charge and took the bus home. Unfortunately, the tops of my batteries were slightly wet since I washed the car that morning to show it off, causing a short circuit and shutting down the battery charger. The next evening on the way home from Aspen I had to call my friend to tow me the last four miles to my house.
Some other drawbacks to the car became evident during the cold winters. Not having an internal combustion engine meant no heat in the car, so I invested in 12-volt DC heated seat covers. On cold days I could plug them into the cigarette lighter (cars still had those back then) and run them off the 12-volt battery. Window defrosting also proved to be a problem … until I bought a 12-volt DC hair dryer. This worked well with a passenger in the car, but proved a bit dangerous trying to drive and defrost my windows at the same time.
These days, owning an electric vehicle is a lot easier. Compared to my Rabbit, range is quite impressive, from the 75-mile range of the Nissan LEAF to the 265-mile range of the Tesla Model S. There is a rapidly expanding network of quick-charging stations, which can top off the car’s batteries about ten times faster than my 1994 on-board charger. EVs also now use heat pumps or have resistance heaters built in to the seats and in some cases the steering wheel. Some EVs, such as the Nissan LEAF and the Mitsubishi i-MiEv, preheat the vehicle while it’s charging so as not to reduce range once you’re on the go.
Nowadays Prius is a household word, and companies from Walgreens to Whole Foods are installing public EV charging stations throughout the country. Though owning an EV in the early 90s was a bit more complicated than it is now, I loved my VoltsRabbit and am proud to have been an early EV adopter. I’m glad that I had a chance to experience what it was like to own an electric car before there was an EV infrastructure. Seeing the growth of the EV industry is exciting, and when people say EVs aren’t practical I have to laugh and say, “They’ve come a long way!”