Automobile

Before Tesla, There Was Comuta

Illustration for article titled Before Tesla, There Was Comuta

Image: Eric

Classic electric cars from the ’70s and ’80s look like curiosities to the modern eye. Unproven, underdeveloped technology and lead-acid batteries conspired to make vintage EVs unfeasible for most potential customers. For some areas, they actually made a smarter choice than almost any other car on the market, as this week’s featured EV owner Eric is here to show us.

Welcome to EV Ownership Stories! Every week, we’ll be posting an interview with an owner of an electric vehicle. We’re here to show that people have been living with EVs for longer than you’d think, in stranger places than you’d imagine. If you’d like to be featured, instructions are at the bottom of the article.

Eric spent a few years in the late ’90s driving a repurposed 1982 Commuter Vehicles Inc. Comuta-van around the Florida Keys as a daily driver. (He supplemented it with a variety of e-bikes he owned in the same period.) These are interesting vehicles, with an interesting oddball history emblematic of how fringe EVs were only a few decades ago.

The Comuta-van was a higher capacity and higher power version of the Comuta-car that Commuter Vehicles Inc. built in the early ’80s. Commuter Vehicles Inc. itself didn’t entirely design this car, instead buying the rights to the little wedge that was the Citicar when its manufacturer Sebring-Vanguard was dissolved in 1978 to pay off debts and dodge a pending NTSB fine, as Classic Car History recounts. Officially 4,444 of these two-seaters were built, as Wheels.ca recounts, though exact numbers are difficult to trust. The manufacturer was having legal issues with the U.S. government and the production run was only partially fulfilled. The specific Comuta-Van model was ordered by the USPS as a short route carrier vehicle. The USPS asked for 500 of them, but their VINs only go up to 367, per Classic Car History.

Incredibly, the Comuta-cars were the best-selling EVs in America after World War II, until the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S came along decades later and outsold it.

1980 Comuta-Car (The Henry Ford Museum Collection)

1980 Comuta-Car (The Henry Ford Museum Collection)
Photo: Toni Scott

The Comuta-van featured a longer wheelbase, more storage, and a 12-horsepower DC motor (series wound, for maximum low-end torque) instead of the smaller Comuta-car’s 5HP DC unit. It had a 72V flooded lead acid battery system composed of individual 6V golf cart battery cells. A Curtis 400A motor controller regulated the system, and the power from the motor was transmitted to the wheels with a clutchless three-speed manual transmission. Shifting was accomplished by lifting off the go pedal, waiting for the synchros to match up, and selecting your next gear. It had a top speed somewhere around 45 mph in our owner Eric’s estimation, and a claimed range of 40 miles. Eric rarely achieved that, as he told me. Fortunately, the highest speed limit on Key West he’s had to deal with is 35 mph. The island is only two miles wide by four miles long, making range and speed anxieties a moot point.

Illustration for article titled Before Tesla, There Was Comuta

Photo: Eric

Eric’s Comuta-van had been converted from the original USPS-spec right-hand drive to left-hand drive with the help of some sketchy U-joints from the previous owner. The previous owner had also added an air conditioner that Eric described as so loud as to prevent conversation with the passenger while it was on. The car also got solar panels to help recharge both the 12V accessory battery and the actual power bank for the van. The main solar unit was a 240W roof-hinged array that could be angled remotely using a satellite dish actuator for maximum sunlight absorption. Eric estimates the array only added a few miles per day to the overall range. The array was a bigger boon as a sunshade to keep the inside of the van cool on hot Florida summer days, rather than for any recharging capabilities. None of this, however, stopped the previous owner from painting “solar vehicle” all over the van, because it sounds cool.

The main way the lead-acid battery setup got recharged was with a 20A charger stored under the passenger seat. Eric said “[it] used household 120V power. A full charge took about 12 hours. I parked on the street, but most of the time I could find a spot in front of my house and I would run an extension cord out.” It’s a far cry from the charging stations that dot most major highways today, but clearly, it worked.

Eric overall had a very low-maintenance experience with the van in the four years he owned it, although it was still vastly more effort to keep running than a modern EV. The only difficult part he described was that the batteries needed to be topped up with distilled water every few weeks, which took a decent amount of time. It also managed to fill a num er of Eric’s shirts with acid burn holes. He has to replace the batteries twice in his four years of ownership, although swapping the full array of batteries only required an afternoon of work and cost under $1,000. Of course, the 6V golf cart batteries weigh 60 pounds a piece (there were a dozen of them powering the van) and need to be properly recycled. It still was very much a labor of love.

The Comuta did prove itself useful in more ways than as just a car, however. When Hurricane Georges hit the Florida Keys in 1998, Eric used the car as a battery bank for his home:

My neighborhood lost power for over a week afterwards, and I put a 12v inverter across two of the batteries in the car and used the car to power lights and fans for the whole time the power was out. Each day I’d move the inverter to the next pair of batteries and the solar panels were doing a bit to charge the whole pack back up.

Essentially, he used a 1982 van as a very early anticipation of the electric F-150’s onboard generator mode, and it sounds incredibly useful. Having lived through the recent Texas freeze when I was without power for days, parking a reserve power bank in front of my house sounds like an attractive option.

Illustration for article titled Before Tesla, There Was Comuta

Photo: Eric

Overall, Eric said “the car was quirky with iffy brakes, challenging steering, and a stiff ride. But it was nonetheless fun to drive, surprisingly reliable, and drew a lot of attention. The large cube-shaped cargo area in [the] back was quite practical for hauling stuff. If I had stayed in Key West, I likely would have kept it.” Honestly, I can’t blame him. The Keys sound like the perfect place for a car like this, and a limited-production triangular postal van with a solar panel array on the roof for a daily driver is one of the coolest sentences I could imagine typing out for this series. Thank you so much for reaching out, Eric, I really enjoyed learning and writing about the history of EVs in such a personal and engaging way! We’d love to hear from more readers about their EVs, modern or classic, factory or otherwise.


We want:

Your name

What car do you own? (If you owned a car in the past, let us know what years!)

Where do you live with it?

How and where do you charge it?

How was buying it?

How long have you had it?

How has it lived up to your expectations?

A photo of your car

If you want to be interviewed, please let us know an email with an re: EV Ownership Stories to tscott at jalopnik dot com!

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