As I suspect you’ve heard, Volkswagen of America is claiming that they’ll be changing their name to Voltswagen of America, as a way to highlight their new focus on electric vehicles. You may also have heard that we at Jalopnik are pretty skeptical this is really happening, to the point that our bossman Rory said he’ll get a VW tattoo if they do it. It’s April Fool’s day the day after tomorrow, people. More significantly, though, is that “Voltswagen” for an electron-powered VW is by no means a new name. In fact, it goes back to at least 1968.
Sure, VW is playing it up, with the Voltswagen name used on their website showcasing the ID.4, and they did tweet this:
Okay, okay, we get it. Maybe VW will use the Voltswagen name in specific EV branding, but I’m not sold they’re changing the name of the whole company in the U.S. to “Voltswagen of America.”
We’ll see how it plays out on April first. Until then, I’d like to talk about where I think the Voltswagen name first came from, and I’m happy to say it’s a pretty fun story.
It’s from the Great Electric Car Race of 1968.
That first Voltswagen (well, until we find out about an earlier one) was a 1958 VW Type 2 bus, owned by Caltech student Wally Rippel, who converted it to electric power around 1966 or so, and drove it around town to, as Caltech’s magazine Engineering and Science reported back in 1968,
“...to demonstrate an alternative to smog.”
Rippel then became part of an electric car team at Caltech that challenged an MIT team to a cross-country electric car race: the Caltech team would drive from Pasadena, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the MIT team, in a 1968 Chevy Corvair donated by GM and converted to electric power at MIT, would travel in the opposite direction.
As you might have guessed, attempting this sort of cross-country EV race back in 1968 was borderline bonkers. It wouldn’t even be easy to do today; back then, it was almost Sisyphean.
To accomplish the feat, 54 charging stations were established along the 3,311 mile route, placed between 21 and 95 miles apart. Some of these charging stations were extremely improvised, like this one in Winslow, Arizona that looks to be tapping right off a small roadside power transformer:
The race was, by all accounts, something of a shitshow: long charge times for both cars (45 minutes to an hour), the MIT Corvair caught on fire, one of the Caltech drivers got the mumps, both teams ended up burning out critical components (motors, transformers, etc), and both teams made significant use of ice to cool the batteries.
The Caltech team only used 50 pounds of ice, and only when recharging their lead-cobalt (a variant of lead-acid) batteries. The MIT team’s more advanced nickel-cadmium batteries constantly struggled with overheating, and had to be packed full of ice pretty much all the time, with the team using 350 pounds of ice during the trip.
The race was a great underdog vs. rich kid sort of story, like most movies made in the 1980s. Where Caltech’s Voltswagen was just a student’s personal project car, built using pretty basic and mainstream electrical tech, MIT’s donated brand-new Corvair was cutting-edge in every respect at the time, and as a result was faster (it could do about 60 MPH instead of 55) and was supposed to have a longer range, and recharge faster, as well. It even had a special aerodynamically optimized front facia. It did look pretty cool.
The advanced NiCad batteries used by the MIT team were worth $20,000 in 1968 dollars—that’s about $151,000 today! MIT was not playing around, here.
In practice, though, the technical advantages really didn’t come to matter at all. The MIT car was plagued by technical snags and, while it technically finished the race before the Caltech bus, penalties assessed for all the time it had to be towed en route (the Corvair had to be towed 250 of the race’s first 500 miles at a penalty of 5 min per mile!) eventually gave the win to Caltech, with a time of 210 hours—30 minutes less than MIT.
They won by just 30 minutes! That’s amazing!
The Voltswagen wasn’t all that primitive, though—it did have the ability to do some regenerative braking, using the motor driven by the wheels to generate electricity to recharge the batteries, which was used on a long downhill grade into Needles, California.
Caltech’s Voltswagen proved a few crucial things: sometimes proven reliability beats bleeding-edge tech, and if you’re doing a cross-country drive, it’s great to have a vehicle you can easily sleep in.
You really should read through the whole Caltech article; it’s a fascinating look at how far we’ve come and a great insight into how clever and bold these early EV pioneers were.
Wally Rippel, the owner of the Voltswagen, later went on to work for JPL and then later Tesla, helping to develop the motor for the original Tesla Roadster around 2006.
Maybe Volkswagen will really become Voltswagen. Maybe not. Either way, it’s worth taking a moment to commemorate that original 1958 Voltswagen, the winner of the first ever Great Transcontinental Electric Car race.