Automobile

This Guy’s One Garage Will Take You Through The History Of Modern EVs

Illustration for article titled This Guy's One Garage Will Take You Through The History Of Modern EVs

Photo: Randy

Many of our featured EV owners have either recently gotten into their first electric car, or had one that really pleased them far in the past. The automotive genre is relatively new and has had its share of growing pains, so it’s rare to find someone who’s nearly covered two decades of electrified auto history on their own. This weeks’ featured EV owner, Randy, has been a fan — and an owner — of rechargeable cars since I was four years old.

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.

Randy’s first EV was the difficult-to-obtain CARB special 1999 Honda EV Plus. The EV Plus was part of a dramatic change in the car industry: it was an electric vehicle produced and sold by a major manufacturer that did not rely on lead-acid batteries for its power bank. Instead, it ran off of a nickel-metal hydride unit. That was similar to the Toyota RAV4 EV and GM EV1 of the same era, and came just after Nissan started shipping cars with lithium-ion setups. Indeed, Randy and his wife actually did comparison shop the EV Plus with the GM EV1, making them some of the very few people on Earth to have actually driven both of these incredibly rare early electric cars.

The EV Plus was released by Honda as a lease-only vehicle and served as a testbed for many future technologies they would integrate into the Insight in the coming new millennium. With production numbers estimated somewhere around the 300-car mark, Randy struggled to get one and was only able to pick one up when a town in NorCal canceled two of their five city vehicle orders. The original lease terms were only set to be three years, but Honda granted owners who enjoyed the car extensions, and Randy loved it.

The EV Plus had impressive specs for today: 80 miles of range, regenerative braking, and an eight hour time to fully charged would all be fairly competitive nowadays. Plus, with a whopping 203 foot-pounds of torque, I imagine it was quite fun. Randy spoke highly of the quality of his Honda — he owned a ‘98 Accord during the same period and said that the fit and finish of the two were identical. Even now, after having owned the more modern Leaf and Bolt, he still preferred the cluster and overall user interface of the EV Plus from 20 years ago to the newer options.

He kept the EV Plus until 2004, when Honda took back the car and presumably destroyed it, as it did with all of the leased EV Pluses. This was not due to any fault of the car itself; when I asked Randy if he would have kept it given the option, he told me that he and his wife specifically asked to buy out the car but Honda refused. (Anyone familiar with the EV1 story will be seeing parallels here.)

Then came a bit of a dead zone for full EVs in America, as Randy pointed out. No one was selling electric cars after the initial wave of testbed vehicles like the EV Plus, but he enjoyed them and “never wanted to go back” to combustion cars. As he said,

…it was clear no one was going to sell us a factory built EV (maybe ever again)… [in the mid-00s] Tesla was promising the roadster but it was way out in the future and outside of our budget. We just assumed EVs were dead for another 100 years.

The obvious solution? Build your own electric car, at home. Or at least, that’s the obvious solution when both you and your wife are engineers at NASA. Off Randy went to eBay to find a decent Porsche 914 to do a motor and battery implant into, and create his own EV.

Illustration for article titled This Guy's One Garage Will Take You Through The History Of Modern EVs

Photo: Randy

The 914 was a very on-and-off conversion process. I empathize completely because I understand NASA keeps you quite busy, having spent time there in a previous life myself. Still, Randy and his wife finished it in 2008. Version one of the swap that they initially completed used 26 kWh of lead-acid golf cart batteries powering an Azure Dynamics AC24 motor that was good for about 44 horsepower. The project initially began with a kit from ElectroAuto, a now-defunct EV swap company, but as Randy explained:

We quickly went off-script. For instance, we wanted a 240V charger rather than the 120V unit that came with the kit. We also substantially changed the wiring to get better telemetry and to include more interlocks (e.g. if the charger door is open then the key can’t start the motor).

V1, as he called it, was good for about 35 miles of range, and was a drivable and enjoyable car. V2 came later, with the lead-acid batteries getting tossed out for an 18.5 kWh lithium-ion setup that allowed him to drop 1,200 pounds (!) of curb weight and nearly double the usable range. The Porsche is now in V3 form, with the same batteries now mated to an HPEV AC-51 motor with a Curtis controller, which doubles the power from the previous AC24 all the way to 88 HP. The original combustion engine in the 914 only made 79 HP, and Randy’s swap still allows for him to use the original Porsche 5-speed gearbox, so as he put it “the car handles amazingly well. With all the torque, it is a lot of fun on windy roads.” And I can believe it with that power and that platform.

The Bolt and the Leaf are much more mundane stories, being true mass-market EVs that you can still walk into a dealer and buy today, but they at least meant that Randy and his wife didn’t need to wait a century for the resurgence of the electric car. He related a fun story to me on that note I’d like to share here:

One Saturday morning, my son and I were sitting in the EV+ and waiting for our local library to open. A woman came over and knocked on the window. She wanted to know if this was an electric car. When we said it was, she was so excited. She was in her mid-80s and grew up in EVs. Her dad thought gas cars were too noisy, too messy and too hard to keep running. He thought they were a fad and drive EVs into the early 1930s before giving up and getting a gas car. She was so excited to see one on the road again.

Nowadays, with the promise of electrification becoming more of a reality on a daily basis, it’s hard for me to imagine going through a period of a decade – or maybe five decades – without ever seeing a successful one. Thank you for sharing your incredibly cool stories and experiences over the resurgence of EVs with me, Randy! 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

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