Bud Wheeler with his Electric Car

Grandpa was very proud of his home-built electric car, made from a 1970 VW Fastback.

He always had a knack for things mechanical. When my electric train locomotive wouldn’t run right I took it to Grandpa and watched as he patiently examined it and administered a drop of oil here, or re-soldered a wire there, then handed it back to me with a reassuring “here, try that.” I can still smell the 3-in-1 oil in his florescent-lit basement workshop, well-stocked with tools and parts. Having come of age during the Great Depression, he never threw anything remotely useful out—as attested by the old glass pickle jars and Maxwell House coffee cans filled with old nails, bolts, screws, nuts, and other hardware accumulated over the decades.

Of course he had a special way with cars, loved the sound and feel of a well-tuned engine. His Snap-On ratchet and socket set (vintage 1944) turned many a nut. I still use it today. Hudsons, Buicks, DeSotos, he knew them all like the back of his hand.

He had a bit of the inventor in him too. I remember the electric car he built out of a shiny black used 1970 Volkswagen Fastback. It was 1977, not long after the oil embargo rattled the country and moving beyond petroleum seemed eminently sensible. Grandpa rolled up his sleeves and took on the challenge, swapping out the VW’s internal combustion engine for a used electric towmotor and ten 6-volt golf cart batteries. His years working at the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company certainly gave him a helpful background and more recently he’d joined the Ohio Electric Vehicle Association, a local group that promoted and built electric cars.

Grandpa Under the Hood of His Electric Car

The battery bank under the hood consisted of conventional flooded lead acid batteries designed for golf carts.

While not a rig you’d take to the drag strip, the black two-door could hold a respectable 55 mph on the highway and ranged 45 miles before needing a recharge. Grandpa topped off the batteries overnight by plugging into a wall outlet with an extension cord. It was his daily driver, ferrying him to the insurance company office each morning and back again each afternoon. I remember riding in it with him to run errands or just cruise around (grandpa loved to drive). It was so quiet—all you could hear was the soft hum of the transmission gears and the clicking of relays. To my 10-year-old brain it seemed like a mysterious, amazing machine and a remarkable accomplishment. I was proud of Grandpa.

Grandpa's Electric Car

Grandpa used the car as his daily driver to commute to work.

Like all innovators who pushed the boundaries of what’s possible, Grandpa faced some tricky issues with his homemade contraption. Hydrogen gas emitted by the batteries would sometimes accumulate in the trunk space. Hydrogen in the right concentration is explosive and all it takes is a small spark—unfortunately the electric relays were installed in the same space. I never experienced one of these explosions myself, but I remember they created a nasty mess of corrosive battery acid in the trunk that poor Grandpa had to clean up. He never did solve the problem and eventually had to give up on the car.

Electric car batteries

The trunk space housed a bank of golf cart batteries and some electrical relays. This shared space became somewhat of a headache for Grandpa, as the sparks from the relays would occasionally ignite accumulated hydrogen gas from the batteries and cause an explosion. Created quite a mess for him to clean up!

Last summer—forty-two years later—my wife and I went to a local dealer and bought a mass-produced electric car. I wish Grandpa was still around to see how far the technology has come. I’d love to let him take the car for a spin.

Looking back I appreciate how important the inventive spirit and ingenuity of people like Grandpa is in moving technology forward. In his quiet, modest, unassuming way, he was a groundbreaker willing to take risks and innovate. Like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, he didn’t see limitations, he saw possibilities.

Bud Wheeler Electric Car Newspaper Article

The Lakewood Sun post sent a reporter and photographer out to interview Grandpa and take pictures for a feature story about his electric car. In the fall of 1977 a car like his was a real novelty.


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