Why I Built an Electric Car in the 1990s

You can regularly see articles that suggest the only way someone would buy an EV is if the government bribes you and/or the manufacturer. I disagree. I do think the “government bribes” are not the best approach to encourage adoption but I feel that if people have the option to try an EV many will decide that is what they want. Even Elon Musk has said the bribes were not necessary. Here is my personal story.

There had been some very non-compelling EVs in the 1970s. For example, here is a CitiCar. There were others but this was probably the most popular. Later models had a 6hp DC motor and had a top speed of 55 kph and range of 60 km. Not exactly compelling specifications but it got me thinking. I wondered if a practical electric car was possible.

When I had the time (and the money) I decided to give it a try. First, I found an old VW rabbit with an almost dead diesel engine. I told the owner that if he could get it to my driveway I would give him $400. He did. Next, I bought a conversion kit from Electro Automotive. The kit included a 10 hp DC motor, plate to adapt the motor the the VW transaxle, controller, meters, some other assorted parts (like a vacuum pump so the power brakes would work) and, most important, a manual with lots of pictures.

To complete the conversion I needed the batteries, a welded bracket to support the motor and a Sawzall to cut some holes in the trunk. A co-worker’s husband worked in a shipyard and I got him to make the bracket while I got on to removing a lot of stuff from the car. It was probably a couple of months later that I had cobbled together a box for batteries in the back and mounts for more batteries in the front and got all the pieces on the Rabbit. Test drives showed me that it would go about 110 kilometers per hour and had a range of around 100 kilometers. That easily met my needs. The only other thing I added with a heater using a ceramic heating element from a regular portable household heater. While it didn’t really make it very warm in the car, it was needed to defrost the windshield.

The most disappointing thing about the car was that people just didn’t notice that it was any different than any other Rabbit on the road. While it made no noise they wouldn’t know it because all they could hear was the noise of their own car.

It became my daily commuter car. A round trip to work and back was about 15 km giving me lots more range to run any errands as well. I loved it. It was perfect for what I needed and with Seattle’s low electricity rates the cost of operation was as close to zero as you could get. We ended out relationship in 2002 when I moved to Central America but I still miss having a zero emissions, zero problems car to this day.

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