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The Great Big Headache of 1968

When Caltech challenged MIT to a cross-country electric-vehicle race, it turned out to be a classic tale of the tortoise and the hare.
Electric car at MIT ceremony
Electric car at MIT ceremonyMIT Museum

Fifty-four charging stations, seven and a half days, 350 pounds of ice—and just $25 worth of electricity. That’s what it took to get the car known as “TECH I” (short for “The Electric Car Hack”) across the country in the Great Electric Car Race of 1968. As MIT students raced TECH I from Cambridge to Pasadena, a team from Caltech was driving a modified VW bus dubbed the “Voltswagen” in the opposite direction. The two teams vied to be first to cross the country, but the overarching goal was to jump-start America’s enthusiasm for clean-emission cars.

Today, upstarts like Tesla and traditional carmakers alike are selling electric vehicles (EVs). But this isn’t the first time American consumers have been able to choose between a gasoline-powered car and an EV. In the early days of automobiles, it was unclear whether electricity or internal-combustion engines (which could be powered by either steam or gasoline) would emerge triumphant. In 1900, at least 27 companies produced electric vehicles. But the 1908 release of Henry Ford’s affordable gas-powered Model T was a death knell for America’s EV manufacturers; within eight years, most had closed their doors. Gas guzzlers prevailed, and with them came vehicular emissions.

By the 1960s, these emissions enveloped American cities in smog. In New York, you could wipe the pollution off windowsills. Across the country, the smog hovering listlessly over Los Angeles inspired Caltech undergrad Wally E. Rippel to make his 1958 VW bus emission free. Eager to demonstrate electric-powered vehicles as an effective way to combat smog, he retrofitted the bus with $600 worth of batteries and a fork-lift truck motor, touting its virtues to anyone who’d listen.

But driving around Pasadena wasn’t making the waves Rippel wanted; he needed a demo that would draw in the press. Banking on the rivalry between MIT and Caltech, he proposed a race. Each school would design an electric vehicle and see who could reach the opposite coast first.

An electric car had already ventured across a large swath of the country 60 years earlier, when Oliver P. Fritchle drove his electric vehicle—which could go 100 miles between charges—from Nebraska to New York City. It took 28 days, including eight days of sight-seeing. But in 1968, a growing awareness of the costs of air pollution meant the time was ripe for another such trek, this time from coast to coast. Both MIT and Caltech were racing conventional vehicles modified to run on electricity. Caltech drove Rippel’s souped-up VW bus, while MIT added 2,000 pounds of Gulton nickel-cadmium battery packs to a white 1968 Chevrolet Corvair supplied by GM.

Even the write-up in Technology Review noted that the race “ended by proving painfully and publicly just how far off may be the real heyday of the commercial electric car.”

The Great Electric Car Race didn’t go smoothly for either vehicle. The MIT team was making changes to the Corvair up to the last minute. TECH I initially had an experimental transistorized motor, technology the MIT team believed held the most promise for electric cars. Six days before the race, however, the Boston Globe reported that failures in its electronic circuits had led the team to swap it for a conventional motor similar to the Voltswagen’s. Then, two days before the start, the MIT team noticed another issue: the batteries, packed too snugly to allow sufficient air circulation, were overheating, forcing the team to tinker with their distribution. “We got the batteries, all 2,000 pounds of them, back into the car, got everything reconnected, and amazed ourselves by making it to the starting line for the gun,” Leon Loeb ’70, leader of the TECH I team, wrote in his postmortem of the race for Popular Mechanics.

At high noon on August 26, TECH I was off to an impressive start. The 5,200-pound electric car tooled along the Massachusetts Turnpike at a respectable 50 miles per hour, even passing the press car, perhaps to provide a good photo op. The smooth sailing didn’t last long, though: 25 miles from MIT, TECH I’s batteries, which hadn’t charged to full capacity, sputtered out. The car was towed to the first charging stop, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Overheating batteries were also still a problem, so in Albany, they started covering them with ice to slow their discharge. James Martin ’70, one of the TECH I drivers, told Technology Review it “was like driving an iceberg.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the drivers got out of the car shivering.

For a journey that was expected to be silent, TECH I’s drive was marked by several difficulties of the explosive variety, leading contestants to dub the race “The Great Big Headache.” Two human errors on the final day cost TECH I the race. At a charging station in Newberry, California, the car wasn’t properly grounded, blowing out the motor. The MIT team planned to fix it at the next stop, but TECH I was left in low gear instead of neutral while being towed, overrevving the motor and putting it fully out of commission. TECH I had to be towed the final 130 miles. Caltech’s car issues weren’t as electrifying, but the Voltswagen didn’t fare much better. Its motor blew on the way to Flagstaff, Arizona, and a replacement had to be flown in from Michigan.

The MIT team crossed the finish line in Pasadena before Caltech’s team arrived in Cambridge. But because TECH I had been towed about one-seventh of the way, penalty minutes were added to its final time. In the end, Caltech’s VW bus was declared the winner, with a journey of 210 hours and 3 minutes versus MIT’s 210 hours and 33 minutes. Following the race, both cars were shipped to Washington, DC, and displayed in a “Cars of the Future” exhibit at the Smithsonian.

The many trials and tribulations of the Great Electric Car Race left some journalists unimpressed about the future of EVs. “What I saw convinced me that electrics aren’t practical,” wrote Erik H. Arctander in Popular Science after following TECH I from Cambridge to Pasadena. Even the write-up in Technology Review noted that the race “ended by proving painfully and publicly just how far off may be the real heyday of the commercial electric car.”

Driving two electric vehicles coast to coast “wasn’t a demonstration of how wonderful they were, only that you could do it,” Martin says today. Beyond hinting at the potential of electric cars, the event also highlighted the need for clean transportation options. In an ad in the Wall Street Journal, the San Diego Gas & Electric Company commended both teams for their “effort to demonstrate that there are ways to power automobiles without air pollution.”

Today, gas-powered cars still dominate the roads, with electric vehicles accounting for only 1.9% of US light vehicle sales in the first three quarters of 2019. But electric vehicles’ performance has advanced dramatically in the five decades since the Great Electric Car Race—enough to support the all-electric Formula E racing league. In races, these EVs hit speeds of up to 174 mph, a far cry from TECH I’s top speed of 78 mph. And that 78, Jim Martin confided to the Los Angeles Times, “was while we were going down a steep hill.”

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