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Car Tribes

High voltage in Vancouver

  • Vancouver, electrified
    Bruce Stout, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA), in the association's 1912 Detroit Electric. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    Stout commiserates with owners of a Tesla Model S. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    The Detroit Electric cost $3,200 when new, the rough equivalent of a small house or six Model T Fords. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    A row of Nissan Leafs at the meet. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    A Tesla Roadster adjacent to a Tesla Model S sedan. The California-based EV start-up was represented by a half-dozen vehicles at the meet. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    At left, Dr Mike Kiraly, driver of the Steam Whistle Brewing 1958 Chevrolet Apache, with Greg Murray, who converted the Apache to run on electricity. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    Electric innards exposed at the meet. (Brendan McAleer)
  • Vancouver, electrified
    (Brendan McAleer)

HIDE CAPTION

As the sun beat down, a gleaming Tesla Model S sedan glided soundlessly to a stop, flagged down by a wild man in dress trousers, top hat and T-shirt.

The Tesla’s occupants are as polished and poised as their umber-hued, $80,000 electric sedan. The figure accosting them, meanwhile, has porthole-size eyeglasses and a beard that streams in the breeze like a cumulus cloud hooked on a mountain peak.

The gentleman in the stovepipe handed over his business card – his name is Bruce Stout, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA), and he thanks the two for bringing their Model S to the day's event, the association's annual car show. Though these individuals appear as far apart as anode and cathode, there is a brief, enthusiastic chat about coming electric car meets, and then Stout clears the Tesla's way with a piercing whistle, sending inattentive pedestrians scattering.

The salty waters of False Creek ripple and shimmer. Beyond these, pillars of glass and steel rise impressively against the North Shore Mountains, which create a steep-sided barrier to all intrusions. This is Vancouver, hemmed in between shore and slope, pinched between the sea and the sky. It is a unique landscape, and one that has earned the city the dubious distinction of being the second most congested urban area in North America.

As such, the current of cyclists and pedestrians are diverted by the group of shining electric cars that fill two-thirds of the parking lot. The Teslas, a half-dozen of them, receive the most attention from bystanders. One even bears the autograph of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, having made a nine-day, 1,500mi run along the West Coast from British Columbia to Mexico.

Despite the athleticism of the gathered electric super-saloons – each with the grace of a Jaguar and the pace of a BMW M5 – the dowager duchess of the show is clearly a 1912 Detroit Electric. It presides regally in a coat of thick black paint, petticoats askew to show the rows of lead-acid batteries that motivate it. It might not have the lines of the Tesla, but it has the presence, and a throng of curious onlookers want to know one thing: what is it?

Built in Michigan in 1912, the two-door centenarian was originally purchased for $3,200, representing the cost of a small house at the time, or six Model T Fords. A quarter of the price was down to its Edison-made nickel-iron batteries, recently replaced with modern lead-acid cells that actually perform slightly worse than the originals. The two-door coupe has a maximum speed of 45kph (28mph), and a range of 60km to 80km.

Requiring no arm-breaking crank starter, the Detroit was ideal as a runabout for the independently minded Mrs French, wife of a well-to-do veterinarian.

“No self respecting woman would rely on a man to start her car for her,” explained Stout, the vehicle’s chaperone on this day. The French family, Stout continued, moved from Montreal to Victoria, the seaside provincial capital of British Columbia, and there she drove the car every day until her death in 1960. During the 50s, as sleek, be-finned leviathans belched hydrocarbons on newly constructed highways, Mrs French's little black coupe was kept in the basement of the stately Empress Hotel, ready to leave its ivy-covered home at a moment's notice.

Upon Mrs French’s death, Stout said the car was donated to the provincial transport museum, and there it migcaht have sat if VEVA had not acquired it when the museum's doors were closed. While the historical machine's permanent home is now in the display area of a 100-year-old hydroelectric dam, it is still driven regularly. Stout piloted it over on this morning, perched atop the horsehair-stuffed seat and grasping the steering tiller.

Just a few metres from the Detroit is a squadron of electrically propelled bicycles, and farther along, a bright-green 1958 Chevrolet Apache bears the livery of Steam Whistle Brewing, a local brewery with a focus on environmentally sustainable practices. Despite projecting the attitude of a tire-smoking hot rod, this heavy hitter has a cord attached to it. Depending on changeable gearsets, the Apache will easily hit 120kph on the highway or do a big, crowd-pleasing burnout.

“I wanted to make an efficient daily driver out of a hot rod,” said the affable Dr Mike Kiraly, a polymath who both runs Steam Whistle's regional sales and teaches anatomy and physiology at a local university. The truck was professionally restored and then set up for electric drive by Greg Murray's Electric Autosports; Murray, for his part, brought along an electrically powered Mazda Miata to the meet.

Discussing future electrified projects, Kiraly and Murray engage in the kind of banter common of V8-swapping gearheads. “I'm thinking about doing a Nova next,” Kiraly says. “What about an Impala?” Murray counters. “Nah, that's car's a boat!”

VEVA started in 1988 with the founding mission of gathering like-minded people who wanted to convert their vehicles to electric drive. Though the parking lot is filled with Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts, a do-it-yourself attitude is still very much a focus of the association. John Stonier's 1999 Porsche Boxster is a classic example.

“It took three years to build,” he tells an onlooker, “and I have to say, Porsche engineering is second to none – apart from the fact that they still put internal combustion engines in their cars.” Where the fuel-filler cap would otherwise be, the dark blue Boxster has a plug. Its licence plate reads: OFF OIL.

Whether hand-built or store-bought, a boulevard-strafer or a genteel classic, on this day the electric car is more than the sum of its ion-swapping parts. Stout holds court to a growing crowd as the day wears on, and hardly anyone leaves without at least one Tesla brochure proffered by the owners. (As the California-based start-up lacks a dealer presence in the city, owners act as its de facto PR department.)

Out for a sunny weekend drive, the owner of a Ferrari 458 Italia stabs at the throttle on the nearby three-lane boulevard. The Ferrari's 562-horsepower V8 engine crescendos in a feral bellow, as the red wedge flashes and flickers past the fence.

Not a single person in the crowd turns to look.

Despite projecting the attitude of a tire-smoking hot rod, this heavy hitter has a cord attached to it.

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