AN EARLY NEW ZEALAND ELECTR

New Zealand Classic Car - - KITS AND PIECES - Pho­tos: The PC80 - En­ergy Wise News Oct ‘95 The PC80 - En­ergy Wise News Oct ‘95

With all the cur­rent ex­cite­ment about the new Tesla, it is a good time to re­flect on the fact that there have been a few elec­tric cars made in New Zealand, some more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers. This story is about a car that al­most made it, but a sim­ple change of own­er­ship of a power com­pany stopped it at the pro­to­type stage.

Al­though many will have heard of a New Zealand–made sports car called the ‘Heron MJ1’, few will have heard of the Heron PC80, and what is not so well known is that ‘Heron’ was not the first choice of name for the mar­que. Ross Baker’s ini­tial pref­er­ence had been to give the cars he de­signed and pro­duced the name ‘Ban­shee’. It was on the top of his list un­til he dis­cov­ered that a ban­shee is a fe­male spirit whose high-pitched wail­ing warns of death. Leg­end states that a ban­shee can be heard wail­ing nearby when some­one is about to die. Pos­si­bly not the best name for a car, then. Thus, it was changed af­ter Ross heard of a plane called the ‘Heron’, which had com­pleted some amaz­ing feat in the South Is­land. ‘Heron’ is also the name of a na­tive New Zealand bird known in Maori as the ko­tuku. He liked this name bet­ter, and went on to build sev­eral rac­ing cars, as well as farm ma­chin­ery and elec­tric ve­hi­cles, all un­der the Heron ban­ner.

Unique elec­tric car

Be­sides cars, Ross Baker has man­u­fac­tured about 60 elec­tric trucks; 50 elec­tric golf carts; 150 go-karts; and, just to be dif­fer­ent, 100 bumper boats. But this ar­ti­cle is about his unique elec­tric car called the ‘PC80’.

In the past, New Zealand power com­pa­nies would oc­ca­sion­ally ex­press an in­ter­est in elec­tric cars, gen­er­ally via the con­ver­sion of a stan­dard pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle, with its petrol mo­tor re­moved and an elec­tric one in­stalled. Such a car would have the power-com­pany logo em­bla­zoned on its side and be dis­played for me­dia around the coun­try — more to pro­mote the power com­pany than the ve­hi­cle. Even­tu­ally, the ve­hi­cle would qui­etly fade into ob­scu­rity af­ter the power com­pany got its re­turn on the in­vest­ment via the free ad­ver­tis­ing gen­er­ated by in­ter­est in the car. The com­pany would then re­turn to its core busi­ness of sell­ing elec­tric­ity un­til some bright spark (pun in­tended) again sug­gested that it would be good pub­lic­ity to re­in­force the pub­lic per­cep­tion that elec­tric­ity is a clean, green al­ter­na­tive fuel.

By the early 1990s, one elec­tric com­pany — Pow­erco — was a lit­tle more se­ri­ous about the fu­ture than oth­ers. The Whanganui-based com­pany ap­proached Ross Baker and asked him to de­sign and build a small elec­tric road ve­hi­cle. Hav­ing had plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence with his own elec­tric trucks, Ross was happy to take on the chal­lenge. Ini­tially, he hoped that the pro­to­type would lead to Pow­erco com­mis­sion­ing sev­eral cars to be built and used by its ser­vice per­son­nel in Whanganui. It was thought that see­ing these cars be­ing used as ev­ery­day ve­hi­cles might build pub­lic

City car

As it was in­tended for mass pro­duc­tion, a lot of thought went into its de­sign. Like the Heron MJ1, it would have a fi­bre­glass mono­coque con­struc­tion, and, be­ing a city car, it would only have two doors but seat four pas­sen­gers, with a use­ful hatch­back for hold­ing the shop­ping. It was sim­i­lar in size to the Holden Ba­rina of the time, but it weighed in at only 650kg with bat­ter­ies, which com­pared favourably with the then-ba­rina’s weight of al­most 900kg. At $22K, it was more ex­pen­sive than the Ba­rina, but huge sav­ings would be made in terms of run­ning costs — Ross be­lieved the fuel bill would be a third that of the Ba­rina. Two Son­nen­schein 12-volt bat­ter­ies were placed in the front and four in the back, giv­ing a to­tal of 60 volts pow­er­ing two ce­ramic mag­net pan­cake mo­tors, one in each rear wheel. These mo­tors were only 200mm in di­am­e­ter by 100mm but pro­duced 12kw at stall and 6kw un­der con­tin­u­ous run­ning. They were wired in se­ries and con­trolled by a 500-amp Cur­tis con­troller. The rear suspension con­sisted of a Heron cast-alu­minium swing arm each side, with the mo­tors and ny­lon re­duc­tion gears in the cast swing-axle assem­bly at­tached to a sub­frame with quar­ter-el­lip­tic springs. This sub­frame also held the four bat­ter­ies. The front suspension was de­signed and fab­ri­cated by Heron, with a trans­verse

Top left: The un­der­side of the PC80, show­ing the elec­tric mo­tors in place Far left: PC80 elec­tric mo­tor Left: Front suspension of the PC80 Right: In­te­rior of the PC80 spring and up­per wish­bones and a short­ened Honda City rack and pin­ion. This was at­tached to a sub­frame, which also held the other two front bat­ter­ies. Both sub­frames were bolted to the fi­bre­glass mono­coque body/ chas­sis us­ing the Heron stain­less-steel patented fix­ing sys­tem. The con­struc­tion of the car was very sim­i­lar to that of the MJ1, with the top and bot­tom moulds glued to­gether with a tun­nel and two sills. The car was de­signed to have a range of be­tween 40km and 80km, depend­ing on the ter­rain, at an av­er­age speed of 80kph, though top speed was 100kph. At slower speeds, the range would in­crease. As most New Zealan­ders have a com­mute to work each day of less than 20km each way, Ross did not be­lieve the range would be a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem. If the com­mute were over 40km, three hours would see the bat­ter­ies recharged ready to make the journey home.

By the ’90s, most New Zealand fam­i­lies owned two cars, one of which was the fam­ily car for long-dis­tance work, while the other, gen­er­ally, was a small run­about that sel­dom left the city. The PC80 — with the ‘PC’ stand­ing for Pow­erco — was never in­tended to be the prin­ci­pal fam­ily car.

Pulling the plug

So, why did it not take off? By the end of 1995, two pro­to­types had been made and were un­der­go­ing test­ing by Pow­erco. Ross was get­ting ready to go into mass-pro­duc­tion mode, hav­ing learned many use­ful lessons from the tribu­la­tions he’d had with the Heron MJ1. Ross did not have the cap­i­tal to pro­mote the car him­self, but, with Pow­erco on board and pre­pared to or­der a fleet of cars, Ross would have had the nec­es­sary cap­i­tal to turn his at­ten­tion to the rest of New Zealand. It all could have been dif­fer­ent if Pow­erco had not de­cided to merge with the New Ply­mouth Power Com­pany. The new com­pany was not pre­pared to pur­sue the elec­tric-car project, and, with­out a pos­i­tive short-term fi­nan­cial fu­ture, the risk was too great, so Ross pulled the plug.

It is un­known what hap­pened to one of the pro­to­types, but Ross kept and used the other un­til he left for Aus­tralia. This car was sold to Ray Mil­lar of Mil­lar Electrics in Ro­torua.

Af­ter fin­ish­ing with the PC80, Ross turned his at­ten­tion to an­other car he had been de­vel­op­ing called the ‘Heron MJ 2+2’, which he had been work­ing on since the late ’80s. Sadly, de­spite a good de­sign, it never got to pro­to­type stage, al­though a sec­ond car was built by Roy Hoare and cer­ti­fied by the Con­struc­tors Car Club. This was the last ve­hi­cle that Ross at­tempted be­fore re­tir­ing to Aus­tralia in 2002, where he con­tin­ues to tin­ker with cars to this day. Left: Plug for the fi­bre­glass moulds takes shape Be­low: Ross tries out bo­dynum­ber-one for size

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