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The EVA Electric Pacer conversion involved yanking out the drivetrain and installing 20 deep-discharge, six-volt, lead/acid batteries in the engine bay. (MARTIN BROWN Glenn Research Center / NASA)
The EVA Electric Pacer conversion involved yanking out the drivetrain and installing 20 deep-discharge, six-volt, lead/acid batteries in the engine bay. (MARTIN BROWN Glenn Research Center / NASA)

Classic Car

AMC led the alternative charge Add to ...

The Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs and the other plug-in electrics charging up to make their debuts are the result of mega-million-dollar globally leveraged corporate research and development efforts employing some of the best computer-boosted brains and advanced technology on the planet.

But back in the oil-embargoed 1970s - the last time we were seriously jolted into looking at electricity to maintain our mobility - a couple of Cleveland high school shop teachers were among those who came to the rescue with their golf-cart-battery powered Change of Pace Electric Pacer.

And the performance of this low-tech, juiced-up version of American Motors Corp.'s novel small car - and of other similar industry and individual efforts of the time - points out how discouragingly incremental the gains made in the past three decades actually are. Or over the past century, for that matter.

Inside the EVA Electric Pacer.

The Electric Pacer of the late 1970s delivered reasonable acceleration, had a range of 80 km and its simple lead/acid battery pack could be plugged in at home and recharged overnight. Chevy's Volt claims 65 km on battery power alone (its gas engine extends that), the Leaf 160 km and Toyota's due-in-2012 RAV4 EV the same - from ultra-high-tech and ultra-pricey batteries and complex electronic systems.

The oil embargo of 1973 came as a double dose of reality with rapidly rising fuel costs and actual shortages. At one point early in 1974, some 20 per cent of U.S. gas stations' tanks were empty and those that did have gas to sell had lines reaching around the block for their rationed supplies.

Back in 1976

Diminutive 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci becomes the first athlete to receive a perfect score of 10 at the Montreal Olympic games.

The supersonic Concorde airliner, operated by British and French airlines, makes its first commercial flights.

Apple Computer is created by computer geeks Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The 553.3-metre-high CN Tower in Toronto is completed, becoming the tallest free-standing building in the world for the next 31 years.

One of the most influential and controversial world leaders of the past century, People's Republic of China chairman Mao Zedong, dies.

Smaller, fuel-efficient cars were an obvious answer, but many believed it might be time for electric cars - popular in the early 1900s - to stage a comeback. Among these were U.S. government agencies, which backed development programs and promoted electric vehicles, suddenly concerned vehicle producers and those high school shop teachers in Cleveland.

The Electric Pacer had its genesis in a student project involving electric shop instructor Warren Harhay and auto shop teacher Ed Sarian and the conversion of a car to run on battery power. It performed well enough that the pair created Electric Vehicle Associates (EVA) to commercially convert cars to battery power and hired newly graduated electrical engineer Dennis Eichenberg to help.

Eichenberg, who still works in the electric vehicle field, recalls an exciting time with an atmosphere, similar to that we're experiencing today, focused on concerns over fuel cost, availability and emissions with a great deal of interest in electricity as the solution.

EVA's efforts soon attracted the attention of NASA and car maker AMC, which had launched its new Pacer for 1975.

The compact Pacer, with futuristic aerodynamic styling penned by designer Dick Teague, was billed as "the first wide small car." Ambitious original plans had called for a Wankel rotary engine, but struggling AMC ended up having to stick to its ancient six-cylinder driveline. The Pacer's cool look (well some thought so, although it only lasted from 1975-1980) and its wide-body ability to swallow a bunch of batteries made it an ideal vehicle for EVA.

The conversion involved yanking out the drivetrain and installing 20 deep-discharge, six-volt, lead/acid batteries in the engine bay. They delivered 120 volts to a 15 kilowatt (equivalent to 20 hp, but with plenty of torque) air-cooled, electric motor that drove the rear wheels through a manual or automatic transmission.

A separate battery ran wipers, lights and maybe an eight-track tape player. Air conditioning was available, a gasoline fuelled heater kept the cabin toasty in cold weather, and a voltmeter and ammeter were added to monitor the system. Disc brakes up front, a stiffer suspension and beefier steel-belted radial tires were fitted to cope with the increased weight of 4,150 lbs (1,880 kg). They also incorporated innovative regenerative braking to recharge the batteries and an advanced electronic controller.

Batteries proved the Electric Pacer's Achilles heel, requiring a full charge after every use, regular maintenance and replacement about once a year. And after production of just more than 100 examples, it was all over by 1980 when AMC stopped building the Pacer. EVA produced a few converted Ford Fairmonts and Escorts after that but soon had to pull the plug on the company.

Eichenberg still feels positive that electric power will prove the answer in the long run, however. "The driving characteristics of an electric motor actually suit vehicles better than an internal combustion engine, but batteries have always been the handicap and still are," he says.

The Electric Pacer didn't really outperform the electrics of early in the century and today's efforts still don't provide a much more effective solution than it did. But Eichenberg's convinced new technologies are out there and will ultimately make the electric vehicle viable.

"It's just a matter of time. I believe in 20 years we'll all be driving electric cars of some sort."



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