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May 6, 2021

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Amid push for electric vehicles, former Bonneville engineer recalls building models in 1970s

By , Columbian Features editor
7 Photos
Jack Nugent wrote a booklet called "Build Your Own Electric Car." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Jack Nugent wrote a booklet called "Build Your Own Electric Car." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

General Motors declared that it will stop making gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs by 2035, the same year that California will require all vehicles sold in that state to have zero emissions. Some Washington legislators are pushing to make the shift here even sooner, in 2030, in hopes of averting a climate catastrophe.

This isn’t the first time a shiny electric-car future seemed within reach.

Just ask Jack Nugent. In 1973, he built an electric car in his garage by retrofitting a 1960 Renault with 10 golf cart batteries. They filled the back seat and the trunk, located at the front on that model.

“I thought in the long run it would be a cheaper way to run a car,” Nugent, 85, said. “It took them 50 years to catch up with me.”

Dubbed “Jack’s Volts Wagon,” he drove the car from his Salmon Creek-area home 7 miles to his job at the Bonneville Power Administration’s Ross Complex in Hazel Dell, where he worked as an electrical engineer.

1970s energy crisis

Although the first motor vehicles were powered by electricity, their heyday only lasted until Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, introduced in 1908, took over the market.

8 Photos
The Bonneville Power Administration tested a variety of electric vehicles at the Ross Complex in the 1970s.
Electric cars Photo Gallery

Interest in electric cars sparked again in the 1970s. The United States at the time was grappling with its dependence on foreign oil. In 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries halted oil exports to the United States, causing gas shortages and skyrocketing prices.

Nugent saw electric cars as the solution. He wasn’t the only one hopeful about their prospects. Bob Tymer of Tymer Litho Print Co. and Ed Weis, a retired BPA employee, also retrofitted Renaults in Clark County. According to a 1976 Columbian story, “five electric cars are known to have been built by Vancouver men.”

Nugent’s Volts Wagon garnered quite a bit of attention and numerous stories in The Columbian, The Oregonian and the since-departed Oregon Journal.

Earlier this month, during a visit to the home near Washington State University Vancouver that he shares with his wife, Virginia, Nugent spread out a stack of yellowed clippings on his dining table to jog his memories.

Nugent still has a few copies of a 12-page booklet that he wrote entitled “Build Your Own Electric Car.” He advertised the booklet in Popular Mechanics and sold 200 copies.

An old back injury makes it difficult for Nugent to stand or walk now, but in those days, Nugent spent many hours tinkering on projects in his garage.

He started out working on a small soap-box derby type cart for his young son, and then moved on to bigger vehicles.

“If it wasn’t an electric car it would have been something else,” Virginia Nugent said. “I thought it was an exciting and futuristic project.”

Early experiments

Jack Nugent worked for BPA from 1963 to 1983 before launching his own business testing high-voltage equipment for utilities throughout the Northwest. The Volts Wagon was a personal project, but while at BPA, he offered technical assistance for the agency’s 1975 trial use of electric vehicles.

In 1975, BPA purchased two vehicles to test: a Sebring Citicar Model SV-48 for about $2,700 and an Elcar Model 2000 for about $3,250. Employees drove the cars to get around the 250-acre Ross Complex, where BPA’s advanced testing laboratories are located.

The 1977 report on the trial notes that “available models of EVs are not recommended for use on freeways or major thoroughfares.” They could only travel about 25 miles per day, according to the report, and topped out at 38 mph.

The report concluded that the Citicar performed better than the Elcar, but that both “are prototypes of a very ‘young’ technology. … Significant breakthroughs in battery technology are needed before EVs can be considered completely viable alternatives to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles.”

The Citicar morphed into the Commuta-Car, and a couple of dealerships sold them in Vancouver before production stopped in 1982 and interest in electric cars died down.

“Gas was cheap so there was no incentive that way,” Nugent said. “Of course the biggest drawback was the batteries available then.”

The development of lithium-ion batteries for consumer electronics provided the breakthrough that led to a renaissance of electric vehicles.

New surge

Urgency in developing electric cars recharged with passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment and the 1992 Energy Policy Act, as well as California’s enactment of stricter transportation emissions regulations, according to a U.S. Department of Energy historical synopsis.

GM introduced the all-electric EV1 in 1996, marking a new era. The EV1 had a range of 90 miles and could accelerate from 0 to 50 mph in seven seconds. But they were not sold, only leased. In 2003, GM pulled back all EV1s. The move outraged the car’s cult following, as documented by the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

The push for electric cars continued, however. As GM was taking its EV1 off the road, a startup called Tesla Motors launched in 2003. The company unveiled its first electric car, the Roadster, in 2008. Then the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf entered the U.S. market in 2010.

Critics say electric cars just have a “longer tailpipe” because they still rely on dirty power plants for their charge. Defenders say they are more efficient, and that in the Northwest, most electricity is generated by hydroelectric dams, not pollution-spewing coal plants. But even here, electric cars haven’t taken hold. As of Dec. 31, 2020, about 1 percent of passenger vehicles registered in Clark County were electric, according to state Department of Licensing records, compared with 391,955 gas-powered cars and trucks.

While zeal for electric cars in the 1970s was motivated by gas shortages and concern for energy independence, now it’s about reducing carbon emissions that contribute to warming the planet.

Climate change worries the Nugents. Virginia Nugent considers herself a climate activist, and participates in letter-writing campaigns against fossil-fuel projects.

Jack Nugent said he sold his Volts Wagon in 1975 to a woman who lived in Battle Ground whose name he doesn’t remember. He’s curious about what happened to it.

Nugent and his wife are considering trading their 2010 Toyota for a Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car, he said. “I’d kind of like to have one again.”