Video: Mechanic gets equivalent of 200 mpg with electric car from '70s

Jay Pateakos

Though it’s smaller than a Yugo and slower than a moped, Ernie Rapoza doesn’t mind any of his Commuta Car’s shortcomings, because a gas-powered vehicle would need to get about 200 miles to the gallon to be as thrifty as his all-electric automobile.

As an owner/mechanic at an auto repair shop for the past 32 years, Rapoza knows a thing or two about tinkering with cars.

His first all-electric endeavor was one of his own creation: a battery-powered metal go-cart. Today it hangs from the shop ceiling, but it still runs.

Tinkering was one thing, though, and Rapoza never thought his electric car fancy would be anything more than a hobby. But that changed when Ernie was showing his homemade electric car to one of his repair customers. The man told him he knew of an all-electric car that was for sale. It needed some work, but it looked to be in good shape, the man said.

Rapoza said it was love at first sight, and after briefly haggling over the price, he bought the 1980 all-electric Commuta Car. It had 1,600 miles on it when he bought it two years ago. Since then, Rapoza has put on another 2,000 miles going back and forth to work with the golf-cart-sized vehicle.

The Commuta Car was first produced in Florida in 1974 by a company called Sebring Vanguard in response to the mid-'70s oil crisis. Vanguard manufactured the all-electric cars until 1983, after producing only 2,500 cars.

The Commuta Car measures 58 inches high, 55 inches wide and 95 inches long, and it weighs about 1,400 pounds. As for speed, the Commuta Car is able to travel from zero to 20 mph in about five seconds, with a top speed of about 45 mph.

Besides building a regenerative braking system that allows the four 6-volt deep-cycle front and back batteries and one 12-volt deep-cycle to be charged while driving, Rapoza has made few modifications after the initial work to get the vehicle running.

“I replaced all the batteries, but it still didn’t work. It would have been easier to just replace the engine, but not me, being a mechanic, I just needed to find out why it wasn’t working,” Rapoza said.

But he has done little to it since.

Billed as a low-maintenance vehicle, Rapoza said he would have to agree considering the car doesn’t need oil changes, transmission checks or mufflers. All it needs is a little charging every now and then.

“It takes about five to six hours to fully charge, but I’ve been driving this around for seven weeks and haven’t run out of battery power yet. But I do try to plug in when I’m next to an outlet,” said Rapoza, who also drives the opposite of a Commuta Car (a 1987 Chevy pickup) to work sometimes. That vehicle gets 15 miles per gallon, 185 less than his all-electric. “I use the Commuta Car four seasons. It has good traction though using the heater would take off of the electrical.”

Rapoza fears he will soon have to get rid of his 13-inch Michelin tires (the ones that came with the car) noting how difficult it will be to find a replacement.

“Nobody makes those anymore,” Rapoza said.

A luxury like air-conditioning, Rapoza added, entails rolling the windows down all the way.

Ernie’s wife, Susan, has taken a few trips in the Commuta Car but has never gotten behind the wheel. She said she likes to watch it from a distance while letting her husband enjoy the experience.

“I think it’s cute, and he seems to have a lot of fun with it,” Susan said. “He uses it mostly for his commute back and forth to work.  We use my gas-burning Blazer for longer trips. Ernie is looking at ways to convert that also.”

A fan of the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about the birth and death of General Motors all-electric EV1, Rapoza said GM showed people what electric cars could do, and like his own vehicle, was ahead of its time. Introduced in 1996, the EV1 electric cars were available in California and Arizona as a lease only and were discontinued after 1999 and subsequently removed from the roads and some people’s driveways in 2003.

Thankfully, no one’s taking away Rapoza’s electric car, and he said he has plans to make some modifications to the vehicle someday, including independent front suspension, when time permits.

“It’s old technology, so there are some things I would like to repair or modify,” said Rapoza, shaking his “tinkering”  fingers in front of his face with a smile. “It’s quite a little vehicle for its day, though, isn’t it?”

E-mail Jay Pateakos atjpateakos@heraldnews.com.