Around Robin Hoods Barn in an Electric Car – Part One


SteveTrucker2  Homepage   DreamVacations

“Around Robin Hoods barn” is a euphemism for an unnecessarily long and complicated journey.

This reporter is not an authority on electric vehicles but he did own and drive one for a couple of years.  Neither can he qualify as an expert on electric power generation but Lawrence Livermore Laboratories has some of those.

This tale has metastasized into a lengthy discourse and will – of necessity – be serialized.

Baker, Ford, Edison and Electric Vehicles:

Electric vehicles are nothing new.  There were electric “carriages” as early as the turn of the nineteenth Century.  They were, as a rule – one-off, custom made vehicles and extremely expensive.  The Baker Motor Vehicle Company did go into a production line situation and made a virtue of the expense of its product. Thomas Edison apparently bought one. Anyone familiar with Jay Leno’s pastime will not be surprised that he owns a Baker.

Figure 0: A Baker Electric, similar to Jay Leno’s

Jay also has an Owen Magnetic which was even more interesting and the creation of George Westinghouse..

But, any industrial-scale production would have to wait until some Titan of Industry took up the task, like say…Henry Ford.

Henry Ford (the original) built and tested several prototypes in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  There is a fascinating article by Daniel Strohl (2010) that detailed the efforts of Ford in that direction.  This piece is spellbinding for anyone afflicted with Nerd-Geek-Trivia Syndrome (NGTS) like yours truly.

Figure 1: Ford’s first prototype electric car circa 1913.  Batteries under the seat and motor in the rear. The steering mechanism is quite interesting.  It seems to be a transverse tiller (at the driver’s left hand) connected by a flexible cable (!) to the front axle.  A bank of batteries under the front seat.

Figure 2:  A second Ford prototype on a model T chassis. The driver in this and the previous photo is electrical engineer Fred Allison. Note the more conventional steering, additional batteries and “Rich Corinthian Leather” of the upholstery.



I lifted three quotes from this.  The first is an understatement of a problem.

Henry Ford:  January 11, 1914, New York Times:

The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

Ford recognized the primary problem, alright.  In fact, he underestimated the problem because it killed the electric car in Ford’s lifetime and is still the big bugaboo haunting EV’s today.

Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because :

“Ford demanded the use of Edison’s nickel-iron batteries in the car, and would have no other battery powering this car. Edison’s batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries (which would have made the car too ponderous) were substituted behind Henry Ford’s back, and when he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell to the wayside with other projects demanding Henry Ford’s time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million in the electric car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.”

The second quote is one of those over-the-top optimistic things that even very smart people sometimes say.

Thomas Edison, May 1914:

“All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

I drove a truck to New York City just last year.  Brooklyn it was.  There were plenty of trucks around – illegally double and triple parked.  Not one of them was electric.

Such optimism can be forgiven in long retrospect.  That sort of thing cannot be helped in uncharted territory of emerging technologies.

According to Click and Clack – the Tappet Bros.

Compared to Car Talk, all other forms of Saturday morning entertainment shrink to insignificance.  Tom (RIP) and Ray Magliozzi clowned around while giving car advice on the air.  They had some uproariously funny bits and advice not just on cars but in all matters of Human Endeavor. People tended not to take them seriously.  But it is important to remember that these two were quite experienced and educated people.

The comment I remember from their show (but cannot track down for a reference) echoed that of Ford, some eighty-odd years before and it went something like this:  “The problem with electric cars is – and always has been- the batteries.”

{color:blue;}The Jet Electrica

Direct experience is the best method for learning and I can authoritatively state that the battery problem had not been resolved as of the early years of the Twenty First Century.

Around the turn of the aforementioned Century, I was fascinated by the idea of electric vehicles,  until I eventually bought one.  It was a 1981 Jet Electrica.  These things were built on Detroit products called “gliders” which are complete vehicles, including transmission and drive train, but lacking any engine.  The idea is that the EV company would provide the electric motor.

Figure 3: 1981 Jet Electrica.  This would have been a Mercury Lynx, which was a flashier version of a Ford Escort.

I don’t seem to have any photos of my own of the vehicle that took me to work and back for two years.  This one was grabbed off the internet and turns out to be from the used car ad that I saw when I bought this vehicle for $1000.  I am quite sure that this is the one because after 5 or 10 years, the state of Texas says you need a new license plate (not just “year stickers”) on your car and the one you see on the front in this picture (YZY 11T) is now nailed up on a joist in my garage (this is a tradition in Texas).

That motor is the easy part.  It is tiny compared to the Internal Combustion Engine required to move the “real” (i.e., non-glider) model of this vehicle around.  It was connected directly to the clutch and the driver would start with his foot OFF the clutch, accelerating rapidly to 5 mph and up-shifting from there.  The “acceleration” went flat at about ten mph and I was constantly harassed, passed and hated by cars behind me.  In fourth gear, it was possible to careen down a boulevard at 45 mph.  Once (once!) I took an on-ramp to Interstate 10 and managed to get the poor thing up to 70 mph.  At that time, Scotty called up from Engineering and said, “Cap’n! Ah cahnt gi’ ye waarp five mooch langer!  It’ll tear th’ Enterprise apahrt!  I took the next exit ramp and never again did the Jet see Interstate pavement.  Braking was done in the conventional way, but lacking any benefit from downshifting.  The car stops in 4th with the clutch still engaged and the shift to first is made while motionless.

As Ford learned all  those decades before your humble narrator, it is the batteries that were the big problem. The batteries in the Jet Electrica were similar to the configuration of Ford’s second prototype and used those same type of lead-acid batteries.  There were six six-volt golf cart batteries under the hood.  A fat cable connected them to ten more such units under the hatchback, beneath and iron (SIC) cover what would be the spare tire well and gasoline tank in a normal Lynx. These are directly connected with the passenger compartment, you understand!  That’s a bad idea for several reasons.   There was a 17th battery – this one a 12 volt – that powered the lights and radio.  It was tucked under the left rear fender.

The ten batteries in the back were connected in series by standard battery cables with top-post connectors on each end.  There are a grand total of 16 six volt batteries that supplied a 96 volts to the motor.  The batteries were “deep-draw” that is they hold a lot of charge and will dump large amounts of current quickly – between 100 and 200 amps.  There was more than enough voltage and current to do electric arc welding with just a lead and ground connected to the first positive  and last negative terminal of  the battery pack.  The cable ends tended to loosen as the car’s body flexed when it went over bumps and around turns. The loose connection makes for more resistance and heat is generated.  Least you think it might be minor – that welding example needs temperatures of about 1200 degrees F. Eventually, the battery terminal melts off its base and falls through the plastic case.  Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas and it is ignited by the red-hot electrode and subsequently explodes.  This is loud enough to be unnerving and of course breaks the series circuit.  Like cheap Christmas lights, when one goes out, they all go out and you’re walking. Unless you happen to be carrying a long spare cable.  Then you simply connect the battery before the deader to the battery after same and you drive on with a now 90 volt system.  You drive straight home, because another one may blow.

You take the warrantied battery back to Sam’s Club and trade it in for a new one.  Shrug when asked what happened and no need to mention that this is not from a piddley little 36 volt golf cart but a 96 volt “compact car” that weighs 3300 pounds with all these packets of lead aboard.

The solution to that particular problem was to tighten all the battery connections each time I wanted to drive somewhere.  And while we are at it we can open the 48 battery caps and fill them up with distilled water.  Some cells seemed to be “thirstier” than others.  And, best to wear a shop apron or change to work clothes for this labor, since the acid fumes eat your clothing in short order.  The batteries also outgas what I suspect is some compound of sulfuric vapor.  The smell alone was enough to remind me that the batteries contain sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and water (H2O) and chemical reactions going on all the time.  A little knowledge is a scary blessing. In the oil industry, there are “sour wells” that contain Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) and the stuff will kill you pretty quickly at very low concentrations.  I have no doubt that at least a small fraction of the fumes from the battery pack were this deadly compound. There was an exhaust fan in the rear battery compartment that I never managed to make operate.  So, instead I arranged to prop open the hatchback and leave the front windows at least partially down at all times while driving.

The ventilation requirements became a problem in the winter.  The car had a heater that made  the irony factor go right off the scale.  Since heating off the battery bank would potential cut the 40 mile range in half on a cold day, the manufacturers of this electromechanical oddity had put in a gasoline burning heater. These are nothing new.  My father owned a (conventional gasoline powered) car with such a device in about 1950.  So I am told by my Uncle (Mother’s younger Brother) who was able to borrow that vehicle for drive-in movie dates.  The gasoline heater was far more efficient than running the engine for heat and made such social functions affordable.

The heater in the Electric had a two-gallon tank, which was cleverly installed behind the filler for the conventional Lynx tank.  The previous owner had not used it and – thinking of all the hydrogen fumes floating around – neither did I.  On really cold mornings I ran an extension cord to the Jet and left a hair dryer running for a half hour or so to warm the cab and defrost the windshield.

This Jet company had the audacity to put a battery powered air conditioner under the back seat.  As purchased its disembodied motor/compressor unit was on the floorboard and that is as close as it got to ever again attempting to cool the car.  Air conditioning in Houston is not for lightweights.  In the 80’s (if I remember correctly) Houston had a new fleet of Grumman busses with their standard air-conditioners.  They quickly surrendered to the Texas Summer and were re-enforced with huge roof-mounted units.  The previous owner of the Lynx / Electrica lived in Dallas, which is worse.  Dallas was enduring a heat wave in the 1990’s and some bus rider with a thermometer complained that the temperature in the bus was 95° F.

The bus driver told him, “Mister, these air conditioners are good for twenty degrees of cooling.  It is 119° outside so you are getting four more degrees of cooling than you have any right to expect   Please go back and sit down”

I have little doubt that A/C would have eaten up the majority of the poor car’s 40-mile range on hot days.

There is a little known aspect of lead-acid batteries that I re-discovered by accident.  I mentioned that the lid over the battery compartment was iron.  It was a least an eighth inch thick and when I first looked under it there was a big sheet of thick acid-eaten cardboard on top of the batteries, which I removed.

Months later, I was replacing the 12 volt battery and swung the new one up and plopped it down on the iron lid. Something said, BOOM!”.

It turns out that if you push down hard on the middle of the iron lid  (perhaps by plopping a 60 pound battery on it), you can manage to bend it down enough to put a direct short across the terminals of one of the six-volt batteries.  This tries to release all the charge once – with explosive results.  The purpose of the thick sheet of cardboard was now obvious.   Fortunately, the lid mostly protected the hapless amateur electrical engineer from the ensuing shrapnel.

The Sam’s Club battery guys knew me by this time and asked no question when I turned in the warranted remains for a new one.  The iron lid thereafter had a hole in it and a new sheet of cardboard was atop the batteries.

I tell you all these horror stories not to condemn the electric car but to convey the state of technology at the time.  Not necessarily that of the mid 2000’s when I drove the thing, but at least in the early 1980’s when the Jet was new.

I will have to  pick up the story later.

Hasta Luego,


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