F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.02 - February 1996


By James Flint

Adam Harper is a busy man: engineer, mechanic, PR flack, racing driver and prophet. Whichever mode you catch him in, though, the subject matter remains the same. He's an electric car man. And not just any old electric cars. Adam Harper is heavily into the Sinclair C5.

The Sinclair C5 probably did as much as anything else to convince British drivers that electric motors belong in milk floats and milk floats alone. If the future was going to be a little battery-powered buggy that did 15 mph and gave you a range of 15 miles (24km) on its rechargeable battery, then the future seemed like a good thing to avoid. While some saw the C5 as a great - if eccentric - British invention, the road-churning public saw it as something as sure to be crushed beneath a passing lorry as an egg is by a falling breeze block. So much for the C5, a vehicle that made the Edsel look successful. Except that the C5 is back. Adam Harper has rebuilt it. And this time, it does 150 mph.

It has to be said that the new machine doesn't look a lot like the old C5 that we all knew and mocked. Harper has built a concept car; its conceptualising owes more to Hans Giger than to Clive Sinclair, so its name - Alien - seems particularly apt. Still, according to Harper, "It's about 80 per cent C5... with a lot of bolt-on goodies." Goodies like a motor that uses rare-earth magnets, a front wheel from a Harrier jump-jet, rear wheels from a Lynx Helicopter, a beaten aluminium bodyshell, and the distinctive head-cowling that earned the craft its nickname. All that and an Irving braking parachute, as favoured by Campbell's Bluebird, the Thrust vehicles with which Britain vies for the world land speed record, and the space shuttle.

And Harper Cassidy Challenge Electric is not demonstrating the vehicle up and down the country for nothing; Adam Harper plans to set records in it. His first targets are the British land speed record for an electric vehicle and the world land speed record for an electric tri-car.

Alien, officially launched at the London motor show, uses a modified "pancake motor," an unusual design that one Cedric Lynch invented 10 years ago. An inventor's inventor, Lynch had entered a competition to build a vehicle that could go as far as possible on two car batteries. Battery life is the eternal challenge for electric cars. Low voltage seemed the way to go, but there were no suitable low-voltage motors on the market. So Lynch built his own.

By turning the traditional electric motor halfway inside out, Lynch managed to make it a lot more powerful. "I effectively made it like pulling something with a rope round a pulley instead of pulling it directly. You can get twice as much pulling power at half the speed. If you double the voltage and stay at the same speed, you can get a lot of power out of it."

Lynch didn't win the competition (he came in second), but he did emerge with a practical patent that he later commercialised with the help of London Innovations, a group the Greater London Council set up to help inventors bring ideas to market and which chairman Richard Fletcher now runs as an independent trust. He has sold hundreds of the motors, mainly to the European indoor go-kart market.

By combining pancake power, improved aerodynamics and tyres, and computer technology, Harper aims to get the Alien up to 150 mph. Since his modified C5 already does 120 mph, well over the record 106 mph, Harper could beat it tomorrow if he so chose. But he wants to shatter the record, not break it, and he wants to do it when people are thinking about fast cars.

That's why Harper is timing his record-breaking attempt to coincide with the latest Thrust SS effort to set a new world land speed record. Dunlop - who is co-sponsoring the Thrust SS - provided Alien's wheels, and Harper - who is keen to fly the flag and promote British technology - is looking for other British sponsors to help fund the slight modifications to its electronics and motors that Alien will need for its record-breaking attempt. (Some of these modifications - including a head-up fighter pilot visual display and an on-board computer - have since been fitted on Alien.)

But while there's still a lot to do, Harper has little doubt he can do it. After half an hour in his company, you're ready to believe that he could take the thing twice as fast if he wanted to. This is a man who says he's got a C5 which outperforms a Porsche 911. Either he's telling the truth, or he's going to spend the rest of his life in a straitjacket.

Harper ran a cycle business in Kent for more than a decade, and built electric bikes as a hobby. He had some input into the Sinclair Zike - a zero emission electric bike - which, if you want one, is still on the market, as is the Sinclair Zeta, a white box that you can bolt onto the rear wheel of your ordinary push-bike to give it an electric boost. When the C5 finally flopped in 1987, Harper bought up all the remaining stocks, spares and workshop equipment, thinking that the buggy would soon become a collectors' item. And he thought right: a Special Edition C5 in itsbox fetches five grand these days. (They originally retailed at £399.) But for Harper, these C5s weremore than just an investment. He started fooling around with the original design, trying to boost performance. Eventually battery power replaced pedal power as his full-time occupation.

An early client was Arthur C. Clarke, who thought that a couple of C5s would be just what he needed for mooching around his Sri Lankan estate. He asked Harper to adapt them to solar power, and the two men got chatting as only enthusiasts can. Clarke suggested that if Harper were to write a book on the subject that he would provide a foreword. The two men struck a deal. They also cleared up a niggling annoyance for Harper's father, a design and electronics specialist whose distinctive hi-fi was used without screen credit in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. After some urging by Clarke, Kubrick called Harper père to apologise, much to everyone's satisfaction.

Harper's other famous clients include William and Harry Windsor. Go-karters and C5 pilots, they carry on a family tradition begun in 1898 when the United States gave Queen Victoria an electric car as an offi-cial gift. Electric cars were the fastest things around then. One of them set the first land speed record in 1890; another one broke it in 1899, when Belgium's Camille Jenatsky pushed the limits of human ability to an extraordinary 62 mph. Queen Victoria maynot have needed quite that much speed, but she was delighted to be able to drive around the gardens of Buck House and still hear the birds singing.

Internal combustion, however, quickly saw off the electric records, the silence of the Palace gardens, and all the other feats of the electric car's early hey-days, leaving only a few enthusiasts (and a lot of milkmen) to keep the dream alive. One of those to whom Harper spread it was a construction engineer from Coventry called Pat Cassidy. When Harper - still working alone - had finished his first prototype, he decided to attempt the world's first electric vehicle stunt. Unable to find a bus to jump over, he thought a tunnel of fire would suffice. He wanted to do the stunt at Pinewood Studios, but the team there (which choreographs the Bond movies) was busy working on a film. They put him in touch with stunt rider Eddie Kidd, who in turn introduced him to Cassidy - the man responsible for building his ramps.

Cassidy constructed a 70-foot (21m) tunnel of iron hoops packed with straw bales and set the whole structure on fire, ready for Harper to drive the mod-ified C5 through it. The stunt even caught the eye of Cubby Broccoli, who heard about it from the Pine-wood team and considered working it into Golden-eye. I asked Harper what it was like, driving a small metal pod blind through a narrow corridor of flame at almost 100 mph. "You're so focussed onto what you're doing, you're concentrating so much that it's calming in a slightly depressing way. You're quite solemn. When I came out the other end and saw the blue sky, that was when the exhilaration hit."

All in all, not as much fun as skydiving, something else that Harper enjoys, and which he says gives a more relaxed kind of exhilaration, because unlike his stunt it has been done before. "Did you know that clouds have a smell? I always wondered, looking out from aircraft, what clouds were really like. Well, when you hit them you enter them quite suddenly, and they're musty. They smell like a damp cellar."

"Once I realised the potential of electric vehicles," Cassidy recalls, "I managed to convince Adam that he should leave Kent and move up to Coventry, and that we should work together." Thus Harper Cassidy Challenge Electric was born, and thanks to the stunt given a baptism of fire. One of the main problems Harper was having with his C5 was keeping it on the ground: it was going so quickly that it simply took off. Cassidy had links with the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) and he suggested that they use MIRA's wind tunnel facilities - those used to develop the Thrust cars - to help remodel the car and improve its aerodynamics. So Harper sold up in Kent and moved north to the home of the UK motor industry, where he and Cassidy spent 18 months rebuilding the C5 into its current incarnation as Alien: strengthening the chassis, improving the braking system and preparing the bodyshell.

Harper did not drive through the fire for sensory delight. He drove through it to get electric cars noticed - and British electric cars at that. Harper Cassidy wants to boost Britain in general, and Coventry in particular. That is one of the reasons for choosing to remodel a C5 in the first place. As Harper points out, "it would have been easier to build a purpose-designed go-kart, but we did the C5 because it captures the imagination. People can't believe that what we are doing is possible." Alien is the first car to be allowed to display the City of Coventry's Lady Godiva emblem, an accolade denied to even the Thrust SS vehicle, and Harper Cassidy has deliberately timed its record attempt not only to coincide with the Thrust SS trial, but also with this year's celebration of the motor industry's centenary in Coventry, booked to be an enormous event.

Coventry is becoming obsessed with electric cars. The City Council is working with Peugeot to produce a fleet of self-drive electric taxis. They will be using Peugeot's 106 Electric, a production-line electric car already on the market in France. It can go 50 miles (80km) on one charge and achieve a top speed of 56 mph. Peugeot leads Europe in production-line, electric vehicles designed for everyday use.

But cars do not have to be born electric, they can have electricity thrust upon them. Lynch and Fletcher sell electric Ford Fiestas for £8,900. With a top speed of 50 mph and a range of around 40 miles (64km), the revamped cars perform comparably to the Peugeot 106. A six-hour overnight charge will easily provide enough power for an average day's commuting in any of these vehicles. The electricity for this costs under 50p, even less at night-time rates. The batteries, which must be replaced every few hundred charging cycles, constitute a bigger cost. Since batteries for a Fiesta cost £500 or £600, the real cost of a charge-discharge cycle is about £2. Lynch thinks this already compares favourably to petrol costs, and says, "once we find out more about which makes of batteries are the most durable it will be possible to improve the lives of batteries."

It always comes back to the batteries. Harper has many types available. The traditional lead-acid battery retains its charge fairly well over time - so long as it's in good condition. Nickel-cadmium, nickel-iron, and nickel-zinc batteries retain a charge reasonably well for up to a week, but thereafter run themselves down very quickly. Some new batteries, such as sodium sulphur and nickel aluminium chloride, store a lot more energy for their weight. But they only work at a temperatures of between 300 degrees Celsius and 350 degrees Celsius, and will run down very quickly if not in continuous use. They have to be heated when the vehicles which use them are left idle. That's OK for a fleet of buses, but not so good for a little runabout.

If electric cars are to become ubiquitous, most researchers reckon better batteries should be their number one priority. Lynch agrees, but only conditionally. "It is certainly the key thing if they want to keep cars as they are now. I think that it would be a lot better to try to improve the cars so that it takes less power to drive them. That's why I built my bike, because it needs very little power to make it go. Four people in streamlined bikes take less energy than four people in one car."

I want to see Lynch's bike, so he scoots down to the Wired office in it from his home in Potter's Bar and parks it between two cars in a gap you'd hesitate to walk through. From the steps of the building it looks like another piece of Ridley Scott's set dressing - the suspended animation pods in which Sigourney Weaver dreams away the light-years. Lynch holds court as we gather round to have a look, something of the mad professor about him. He has a wild look in his eyes, enormous sideburns and a slick ponytail - and the grin of someone who knows. What it is he knows you're not quite sure, but you're damn sure that whatever it is he can put it into practice - the bike slips along like a knife through butter.

I'm impressed, and this is relatively low-grade stuff - I haven't even seen Harper's machine in action yet. "I had it in a competition in Oxford six weeks ago," Lynch muses, "where vehicles had to be driven in the normal traffic for six hours on each of two days. Mine used about a quarter the energy of anything else that gave protection from the weather."

Harper's ideas take a different slant. He points out that improvements in solar panelling mean that for at least part of the year your electricity costs are going to be zero, even in Britain. He and Cassidy regularly recharge Alien at race meets using 2-by-3-foot (0.61m-by-0.91m) fold-out panels. It takes about six hours on a reasonably sunny day to get a full recharge.

Harper hints that a new development on the battery technology horizon will really change the public's perception of electric vehicles. He motions me closer with a conspiratorial air. "A Japanese company - I can't say which one, but let's just say it's one of the big ones - has nearly completed a project to build a capacitor battery."

To those in the know, this is a big deal. The great thing about capacitors is that they can be recharged practically instantaneously. The big problem with using them as batteries, though, is that they release all of their energy in one large emission. The Japanese claim that they have overcome this problem. By deploying capacitors in a series of banks, they can draw the stored charge out gradually.

Harper foresees a scenario where cars could recharge their batteries in seconds at electric "filling stations" or even while waiting at traffic lights, a magnetic field channelling electricity up into the capacitor bank from grids embedded in the road surface. The grid would debit your credit card - slotted into a special console on the dashboard - at the same time.

"Similar batteries have already been made," he insists. "If someone came along with the money, I could build such a car within a few months. You could charge it practically instantly and it would out-perform practically anything currently on the road."

If electric cars are this good, why aren't we all driving them? Harper puts it down to simple inertia. "For the major car producers to switch to electric vehicle production would mean the scrapping of major plants, a complete retooling, massive redesign projects. At the end of the day they still wouldn't be able to charge any more and their market share would probably be much the same." Add to this the hostility of the oil companies and the petrol engine service market (electric motors, having very few moving parts, don't wear out), and you have gridlock. The free parking that Westminster Council offers to all electric vehicles is a start at breaking the impasse, but it goes no-where near far enough, and the government's latest brain-wave - introducing a blanket £35 road tax for electric vehicles - is a definite step backwards: electric bikes now incur twice as much tax as their petrol-based counterparts.

So, in the future it will be left up to small, independent companies like Harper Cassidy to produce short-run specialist vehicles, sports cars, and conversion kits, which they plan to start doing after their record attempt. Who knows, though? If enough of them start springing up, it'll be just like the pre-war golden age of British motoring all over again.

In 1890, an electric car set the first land speed record. That won't be repeated any time soon, but Adam Harper's Alien does more than 120 mph: well over the record for electrically powered cars.

James Flint (flint@wired.co.uk) is a section editor at Wired.