Reliable electric cars left in the past

Posted June 25, 2010, at 8:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:47 p.m.

One hundred years ago there were electric cars that went 30 mph and had a range of 100 miles. They also had swappable battery packs and features that we pine for today.

So what happened?

Well, we like to drive faster than 30 mph.

Our love of speed and hot rod performance is stunning. It is also a lot of fun.

And our current cars are a lot safer with better braking and many incredible safety features that no one could have imagined 100 years ago.

I have a long list of cars that I would like to drive before I die.

A while ago, a friend let me drive his Porsche Boxster right after he got it. After stalling it twice at a stoplight on Broadway in Bangor, I took it on the interstate and was fully prepared to drive in excess of the speed limit. When he told me that he had only driven it to 80 mph, I figured I should slow down when I hit 85.

It didn’t seem right for me to drive his Porsche faster than he had.

The car would have easily gone 120-plus. It was tempting.

But I am happy to have only driven it that one time. I could see that my thinning hair would be coming out faster with the top down at 90 mph.

If I had a Porsche, there would be speeding tickets and those fun visits to the Porsche dealer for parts and-or service.

The 100-year-old electric car is another story. It is simple. It is reliable. It is repairable by anyone. No wonder it did not succeed.

One thing that really got me interested in older electric vehicles is the speed controls. They were very simple and there were no gears to shift. Shifting gears is a byproduct of gasoline and diesel engines. Electric motors can deliver 100 percent torque at startup. That means lots of power if it is set up properly.

The control that ran the car was a big wooden drum that had copper strips attached to it. The drum was rotated and copper contacts that were called “fingers” made or broke the electric circuits that made the car move at different speeds.

What made these vehicles so interesting to me is the engineering. These are apparently simple devices, but the function is so smooth and efficient that it is humbling for anyone who drives a car to ride in one.

You might find this hard to believe, but I have obsessed on the design of these systems. Before electric cars became so hot, I was scouring eBay and the Internet for every old electric car manual and document I could find. Fortunately, I have had the luxury of working on some of these types of vehicles.

A while ago I was asked to repair an electric car from the 1970s that had electronic controls that were not serviceable. I got the permission to replace the defunct electronics with some of these older controls. After a lot of troubleshooting and fooling around, we had a functional vehicle that operated like the older electric cars.

There were some sparks and close calls, but that was due to my inexperience and stupidity.

The car operated very smoothly and actually could induce some of that pizzazz that we crave in gasoline cars.

The more important point here is the potential of the technology (engineering pun).

The media is giving us weekly snippets about electric cars that are coming soon.

They will be here and they will make a difference.

I suppose we will have the crazy performance that we crave in our vehicles and that is probably important in 2010.

Maybe there is a niche for the simpler older, slower cars of 100 years ago: The older style electric vehicle that only went 30-or-so mph could be a great car for new drivers. Wouldn’t it be great to have drivers who are younger than 18 operating a vehicle that is less likely to hurt them.

Well, except for that spark thing.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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