’70s EV hobbyists believed they were on the verge of something big

Because of consumer demand — primarily in California, where plug-in electric vehicle sales recently passed the half million mark — major automakers have embraced the electric car, and are introducing new models every year.

But in 1976, electric vehicles were only the stuff of hobbyists.

Take for example the small group of EV enthusiasts that met on the first Monday of each month in Hal’s Electric Shop in Bakersfield.

According to the Bakersfield Californian (“Electric car club has 4, members build more,” March 1, 1976), members of the local electric car group, including its president Bill Barber, shop owner Hal Neufeld and two other members, built their own EVs.

The cars, which have a maximum speed of 40 miles an hour, are not particularly noticeable. That is because they use the chassis of conventional small cars. Barber’s car, for example, looks like any other Fiat.

Under the hoods or in the trunks are where the electric cars are different. Gas-guzzling engines have been replaced by electric motors and batteries, lots of batteries.

Barber said in the brief article that anyone interested in pollution-free transportation was welcome to come to the meetings, adding, “and they don’t have to be very technical-minded either.”

His invitation worked. A subsequent news story in The Californian (“Electric car fans want ’em now,” June 27, 1976), records that the group’s June meeting was a hit.

People ranging in age from 16 to 74 showed up to learn about the technical aspects. They compared notes, asked questions, and tried to encourage each other to build an electric car, if they hadn’t already done so. Many were there for the first time, having come as a result of a brief announcement about the club that appeared in The Bakersfield Californian about a month before.

The group spent more than two hours that night talking about what chassis to use (those from lighter cars), the best electric motors (repurposed airplane generators), and how many golf cart batteries to use (between four and 14, depending on the speed and range you want).

The story said that battery technology at the time was “the only thing standing in the way of making electric cars capable of doing everything a gas engine car can now do,” and that group members believed a breakthrough in battery technology was imminent.

It would be nearly 40 years before their anticipated breakthrough would happen, allowing electric cars to be mainstreamed. But the folks who attended the meeting in Bakersfield that night seemed to have had a clear vision of the future.

A retired mechanic said he came to the meeting “because there is a heck of a future in this. I’ve been a mechanic since 1919 and I think the electric car is going to have a greater future than the gasoline car ever did.”

This is where I write to amuse myself.

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