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When Hot-Rod Herbie can outrun a Corvette

Charles Moore, Community Voices Columnist • Feb 24, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The e-car craze may have found a new niche plus one or two never imagined. The news is starting to talk about converting your gas-powered car to battery-powered. This has possibilities.

Can you imagine a VW Bug with 400 horsepower of electric power? Sort of destroys the current image of a Beetle with its rattly four-banger that would barely power most riding lawn mowers. Can you imagine a ’60s-era VW laying rubber in front of new Corvette?

This is hardly limited to Beetles. Think Ferraris. Chevy Pickups. Not only possible, but done.

For $20K you, too, can have a hot-rod Herbie in any color and probably with more luggage space. I suppose you ought to be prepared to buy a lot of tires, not because they are large but because they are small and hard to come by and you’ll eat ’em up on the open stretch of North State of Franklin between Sunset and the post office. This is not just an engine replacement but a full-blown, four-wheel-drive conversion. This is not thinking out of the box, because the box, the chassis, stays the same. It is rethinking how to move the box.

Is it my imagination or is Ford talking about an electric version of the F-150? All quiet and smooth, with tremendous pulling power on all four wheels but limited to 50 miles of range when hitched to a 30-foot fifth-wheel camper. You’d have to buy the special sound system package which plays, in sync with the RPM, a throaty call of the wild that imitates a F-150 by an E-150?

I can take this a step further, following the lead of Formula-e road racing and wonder about the possible e-NASCAR. Formula-e is making inroads, although to watch it on television I have to turn the volume up, for a change. Given the cost of Formula One racing “e” is a viable option. I just don’t see NASCAR going this direction but it might have to or become even more a dinosaur than it is already becoming. Or a battery-powered motorbike, whether a Hog or Kaw-obnoxious two-stroke, although I think I read where Harley-Davidson is looking into something like this already. Sound effects would have to be provided by some method way beyond my technical knowledge.

Car clubs would evolve in restoration and imagination which I think will be really interesting, and I would like to see it!

A given is that battery-powered cars would cut air pollution so significantly that we might see a bluer sky even in East Tennessee.

There are downsides, of course, because there always are. Battery design will have to improve way beyond the current technology used in aircraft, or Tesla cars, or my car, or even the next generation of battery-back-up mileage boosting. The downside also involves recycling and material waste. Living in the hinterland we just don’t have the gumption to recycle. I can foresee instead of junk yards, unsupervised battery yards leaking into the water system or spontaneously combusting. Roadside recycling would still be the norm.

Battery-powered vehicles create another dilemma for the legislature to address for revenue raising, which is neither their forte nor their desire. Worse, I can see Tennessee, by accepting dead batteries for recycling, create a push toward a lax environmental policy for the sake of employment.

The demand for exotic metals will become the most severe limitation. We don’t have nearly the natural resources needed for battery production so we will be forced to trade a former dependence on oil for a dependence on “rare-earth” minerals essential for modern batteries. At one time in our history we practiced innovation and substitution. Nowadays, we just demand our rights.

What to do? Fewer individual cars would be good but not likely to happen. Commuting and errands on weekends are the most extensive use of roadway energy required to move millions of pounds of Tennessee tubbiness so slimming drivers would be a healthy and economical goal, too. Trucks the size of ATVs would help but don’t expect that or a plethora of tear-drop camping trailers. We are a country that demands bigger and bigger, including personal girth.

All of this seems sensible enough but it could be fun, my battery-powered Rabbit against your Camaro?

Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.

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