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Who built the electric car?

Enthusiasts and engineers pick up where the policy makers left off



My initial reaction meeting Colin McCubbin and viewing his latest project was the opposite of Marty McFly's reaction in Back to the Future when he first eyed Doc Brown's latest project:

"Are you telling me that you built a time machine? Out of a DeLorean?"

Because back then the DeLorean was a pretty cool car - steel construction, gull-wing doors... it was a vehicle both rare and expensive, driven by playboys and quarterbacks to all-night coke parties at Studio 54.

But McCubbin's project?

"You built an electric car? Out of a Pontiac Firefly?"

A baby blue, convertible Firefly LE no less. It's the kind of car a student drives (into the ground), or that a retired senior might tow behind a motorhome to use for day trips. The word "shitbox" comes to mind, although electric vehicle enthusiasts know there's more to it than meets the eye. In a lot of ways it's the ideal car to convert into an electric vehicle, even if it required a lot of retrofitting.

As McCubbin explains, it's extremely light and very utilitarian in design. For its size, the Firefly is also relatively sturdy (with some assistance from tie bars and reinforcements). Best of all, used Fireflys are available for cheap and (unlike, say, a DeLorean) there is no shortage of spare parts lying around in wrecking yards.

Plus, McCubbin used to have a MG Midget back in England, and when he learned there were Firefly convertibles he "had a fit of nostalgia."

"So," I ask. "Where's the flux capacitor?"


• • •

For McCubbin, building an electrical vehicle was never so much a question of why as how. When the opportunity presented itself he seized it.

No question McCubbin is an interesting guy. His wardrobe that day was pure Jimmy Buffett, from the flip flops to his Hawaiian shirt. And with his aviator sunglasses and grey ponytail he comes across like a cool high school science teacher.

He also does interesting things. Even spending a short period of time with him discussing his Firefly project opened up a wide variety of other topics I would have liked to explore in a lot more detail. Here's what I picked up in a short period of time:

McCubbin was born and raised in England, attending the same school as environmentalist and progressive political writer George Monbiot (who wrote the bestselling book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning - and who also happens to be McCubbin's cousin).

That high school, Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, is famous for its focus on environmentalism and politics, according to McCubbin, and a lot of its graduates are leaders in England's green movement. Entrepreneur Richard Branson of Virgin records, airlines, mobile etc. was also at Stowe with McCubbin.

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