A Very Rare Electric Car Is Sitting In A Howard University Parking Lot Almost all of the 1,100 EV1 electric cars that General Motors produced in the late 1990s were destroyed, spare a handful that were donated to museums and universities.
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A Very Rare Electric Car Is Sitting In A Howard University Parking Lot

After General Motors discontinued its EV1 electric car, it destroyed all but a few dozen — most of which were donated to universities. LeaderoftheNew/https://twitter.com/LeaderoftheNew/status/1410034906676273156?s=20 hide caption

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To the unknowing passerby, the red two-door sedan sitting in the parking lot behind Howard University's School of Engineering is unremarkable enough to be forgettable, if one were even to notice it on first glance. But to a small subset of car connoisseurs, it's a part of automotive history — and one rarely found out in the open.

It's a General Motors EV1, the first mass-produced all-electric vehicle in the U.S. — a Tesla before Tesla was even a thing. (And, as Elon Musk tweeted in 2017, the likely inspiration for Tesla itself.) And how it got to Howard is something of a tale.

Produced between 1996 and 1999, the EV1 was a pioneer at the time, giving drivers roughly 100 miles of battery-powered driving at a sticker price of roughly $35,000. In a 1997 review, Car and Driver magazine delivered a mixed verdict: "It is quiet, it performs well, and it emits no pollution, but the range problems, the recharging time, and the high purchase cost are obstacles that will have to be overlooked or overcome before the EV1 presents a viable alternative to gas-powered cars. Still, it's a start."

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General Motors didn't see it that way, though, producing just over 1,100 vehicles — all of which were made available to drivers only as leases in California and Arizona. And when the company decided to move on in 2003, it didn't merely discontinue the EV1 — it actively recalled and destroyed the cars. (The EV1's early demise was the focus of the 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? and an earlier book, "The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle" by Michael Shnayerson.)

"The whole mission for this car was to show that electric cars could be fast. It was to appeal to the car buff," says Shnayerson. "Unfortunately not only was there this battery problem which limited the range to as little as 50 or 60 miles, the other issue was 99% of the company wanted to fail because those guys made internal combustion engines."

Only 40 of the cars ultimately survived, donated to museums and universities as keepsakes and research tools. After protracted negotiations with GM, the National Museum of American History got itself a fully intact EV1 (which remains on display), and the Virginia Museum of Transportation also has one. At the same time, dozens of universities — Howard included — got cars with the batteries removed. And since then, the EV1 has been largely forgotten.

Well, mostly.

For a small yet passionate corps of fans, the EV1 remains an object of fascination, both for what it represents as the first fully electric car and the fact that they're basically impossible to find. Random sightings of EV1s often become news: there was the dust-covered one found two years ago in a garage in Atlanta, another one spotted at Kettering University in Michigan last year, and even the shell of an old EV1 that was sold at auction for $21,511. (Engineering students had disassembled it for a class project.)

Twitter user Pepe Lucho noticed the EV1 on the Howard campus late last week as he was searching for a rental scooter. (He also pointed out that the car even features in a Google Street View image dating back to 2018.) Earlier this summer, another Twitter user similarly came across the car — and snapped a picture of its interior.

"[I] almost fell out of my chair with excitement," Lucho says in a message. "The fact that this thing is intact is remarkable."

Representatives for Howard University did not respond to an email inquiring as to the history of the car, but Jason C. Ganley did. Now a teaching professor at the Colorado School of Mines, Ganley was once at Howard, where he came to know the EV1 well.

"That was my baby about ten years ago," he says.

Ganley guesses the university got the EV1 in 2002. Not much happened with it until 2008, when the university joined the nationwide EcoCAR competition, which gave students the chance to design and test new car technologies. That gave Ganley space, time, and resources to work on converting the car — remember, it was given to Howard without a battery — into a hybrid vehicle, a process he documented extensively on a message board for do-it-yourself electric vehicles. (He tried to use ammonia to serve as the charging mechanism for a battery, but ultimately settled on a more traditional gasoline alternative.)

And yes, he eventually got the car rolling again, onto Howard's quad for an Earth Day celebration and out to an "undisclosed location" in Maryland for a test drive. But funding eventually dried up, and Ganley moved to Colorado.

More recently, in 2018, four seniors at Howard tried something ambitious for a final project — converting the now-hybrid EV1 into an electric car again, albeit an autonomous one. They weren't particularly successful, though, as they lacked access to the car for half a semester and couldn't get detailed blueprints from GM or a good explanation as to what Ganley had done during his initial work on the car years earlier.

And thusly the EV1 — one of the few that remains in one piece, albeit somewhat modified — sits in a parking lot at Howard, occasionally attracting the attention of someone with a very particular fondness for technological advances in cars. Ganley says he was told by university janitorial staff that the car — which has been damaged by being parked outside for years — still has some life left in it.

"They said it's still in running condition, it just needs to get charged up. If someone gets it some gasoline, it'll charge up and it'll drive," he says.

General Motors, for its part, has certainly moved forward, having committed to an "all-electric future." That commitment has taken a recent hit, though, as GM has been forced to recall some 140,000 Chevy Bolt electric cars over fears that their batteries could catch on fire.

As for the EV1 fanatics, they're still out there searching for the elusive car. Ganley says one fan approached him about taking the EV1 off of Howard's hands for a private museum on electric cars in Vail.

"It'd be nice if we could bring it out to Colorado so I could see it again," says Ganley.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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