D.C. school was ahead of its time with electric car

Courtland Milloy
Columnist November 29, 2011

Whatever happened to the Volkswagen Rabbit that D.C. public school students converted to a battery powered racer back in the mid-1990s? The car had been the crown jewel of the Electric Vehicle Program at Phelps Vocational High in Northeast Washington. Students were always parading it around town and putting it on display at auto shows. They even got to race it at the Richmond International Speedway.

Then, while Phelps was closed for renovation between 2002 and 2008, the car disappeared from the school’s auto shop garage. When the new and improved Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School reopened, a scaled-down version of the auto mechanics course was moved to another school and the Electric Vehicle Program was discontinued.

So where is the car?

Advocates for restarting the program could sure use it as an example of how D.C. students once led the way in the use of clean energy. And with President Obama pressing on with plans to get 1 million electric vehicles on the nation’s roads by 2015, the city could recharge a program that had been ahead of its time — and it would still be right on time.

“The electric car industry worldwide is growing rapidly because of climate change and efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” said LeRoy Hall, a retired Pepco employee who helped start the EVP at Phelps. “Yet our students are denied training in this expanding and potentially lucrative field.”


The car from the Electric Vehicle Program at Phelps Vocational High is missing. (Courtesy of Leroy Hall)

In recent months, Hall has testified before the D.C. Council, urging its members to restart the EVP. Other supporters have made similar appeals to school officials — as well as inquiries about the whereabouts of the student-built car.

Hall says he’s still waiting for a response.

When it comes to preparing students for work in the auto industry in the Washington area, Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, the Edison Academy at Thomas Edison High in Fairfax County and the Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Montgomery County offer excellent instruction. In the District, Ballou High got the remnants of the Phelps auto mechanics program while students at Spingarn focus on collision repair.

The EVP at Phelps was in a class by itself.

“Even students who weren’t in the program started coming around; they couldn’t believe what we were doing,” said Dave Goldstein, president emeritus of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington who also volunteered at Phelps. “They were saying, ‘What if you did this?’ and ‘What if you did that?’ They weren’t just standing around looking or giving answers by rote. They were making suggestions and coming up with new ideas. That’s how you know real learning is taking place. Kids who had been delinquent started coming back to school. They would come back to school at night to work on the car.”

Converting that Rabbit into an electric-powered racer had required the practical application of physics, electronics, electromagnetism, aerodynamics and hydraulics. Students researched different kinds of electric motors and the type and quantity of batteries needed to run them. They removed the old gasoline-powered engine, the gas tank and fuel lines, and replaced the automatic transmission with a five-speed stick shift.

They installed the electric motor and built their own electrical testing devices using resistance coils from old electric space heaters, put in some electrical adaptors and special gauges.

And it ran just fine. No batteries conking out, catching fire or exploding.

Perhaps even more importantly, the students worked as a team. They cooperated, made decisions as a group and delegated responsibilities. They weren’t just learning how to build a car; they were also picking up on the civic skills needed to build and sustain a democracy.

The team of that brought the EVP to Phelps included Hall, Goldstein, Edward Torrence, who was the Phelps auto shop teacher, and Dwayne French, one of Torrence’s students who went on to run the automotive technology program at Ballou. All say they would help start another EVP if asked.

As for the car, perhaps the city towed it from the auto shop and mistakenly took it to a government vehicle maintenance lot. It’s worth a look. The car was pearl white with the number 51 stenciled on the sides; students said they wanted the car to symbolize the District’s quest to become the 51st state.

Obviously the city didn’t think much of their effort.

“We’re still looking for it,” D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown, an avowed supporter of vocational education programs, told me recently.

Better yet, he could get the program restarted and just let the students build another one.

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