Searching for the spirit of EVenture - is there room to roam with battery power?
Tom "Wookie" Ford is a man who has been known to embark on an adventure or two.
The journalist and TV presenter is famous for venturing off-piste, whether it's taking a Volvo on a search for Bigfoot in the Californian backwoods or driving up an erupting volcano in a Fiat Panda.
When we heard that he was fronting a new TV show all about electric vehicles it got us wondering how a man who revels in being far from the madding crowd would cope with the range concerns associated with battery powered vehicles. So we asked him and here, in his own words, Tom explains the thinking behind the show and discusses just how adventurous you can really be in an EV:
"Most people seem to think electric cars are a bit boring. Highly motivated golf buggies endlessly harped on about by people that only see them through the self-satisfied lens of their lack of local emissions, silence and perceived environmental benefit. The kind of people that abhor disposable nappies, but take five foreign holidays a year. But neither of these things are particularly true. Yes, there are some weird-beard EV fetishists that berate everyone for not immediately embracing the EV revolution while punting around in an £80k Tesla, but there are also thousands who quietly make the most of gently commuting in an EV hatchback - they just don’t shout as loud. Equally, there are quite a few electric vehicles out there that are very much focussed on the more thrilling side of what electric motivation can provide. And some are especially mighty.
Hence the new show. It’s called Hard Cell - and it’s about what happens when you embrace electricity for the performance benefit rather than the environmental goodness. Yes, the fact that you could charge these things up direct from renewable energy sources isn’t lost, but this is more about seeing if electric vehicles can stack up when things get serious. And by serious, I mean 600bhp electric RallyCross Ford Fiestas, an off-road race truck that’s been designed to race in some of the harshest environments on earth in a series called Extreme E, 1900bhp, multi-million pounds hypercars, electric Porsches, spike-tyred ice-racers and all sorts of other stuff. There’s also a resolutely petrol-powered Lamborghini Aventador SV Roadster in there as well for… um… ‘context’.
But one of the episodes that really fascinated me was the one we called ‘adventure’. Being a bit of a roamer, the idea that an electric vehicle could manage proper out-in-the-wild stuff seemed like an anathema. You can’t carry spare electricity in a handy jerry can, and there are famously few charge points in deserts/forests/snowy wastes. And yet. An electric vehicle is, in theory, more reliable than a car with a traditional engine. There are about 1800-2000 moving bits in a typical internal combustion engine, the failure of one of which means total shutdown and either recovery or a long walk. An EV has about 20. I’m generalising, but the point stands. Also, if you properly insulate all the sparky bits, an EV can handle dust, mud, water (really), snow - pretty much whatever you want to throw at it. They don’t electrocute you in the rain, they don’t get huffy at altitude, they don’t suffer from fuel leaks, or busted arteries.
They have instant torque and four-wheel drive is easy. You can make them crawl at a digital snail’s pace - perfect for getting across tricky ground - and they do so pretty much silently. You can move without disturbing the wildlife, hear the birds sing as you travel. They work. In theory.
The issue is still pretty obviously one of range. Because electric cars are famously a little grumpy when it comes to convenient long-distance away from the grid. But most people when they go out camping or off-roading aren’t actually overlanding. They’re going somewhere for recreation - probably never more than 50 miles from somewhere with electricity. Which means that when you start to really think about it, EVs are a genuine possibility when it comes to getting away from it all.
Obviously, I needed to test the theory, and so went to California. Because that’s where a company called EV West is based, a firm devoted to making interesting electric vehicles that actually perform. There I laid my hands on EV West’s 1950s VW Baja Beetle, a car that at its core was designed to compete in off-road racing, specifically the Baja 1000. Long-travel suspension, rollcage, eminently squeaky bodywork - all the things you expect. Except this one was equipped with an electric drivetrain with 130bhp and 300lb ft of torque - roughly three times what the original petrol engine may well have had. In a desert? There’s silly, moderately-fast, environmentally-conscious fun to be had. Yes, I did smash my forehead on the windscreen at one point - Beetles are small, I am not - and no, it wasn’t the fastest thing I’ve ever driven off-road, but if you need convincing that EV can cope with away from tarmac, it’s persuasive. And yet it doesn’t have much range.
Which is why I took my own charge point. And no, it wasn’t just a really long extension cable. What it actually turned out to be was a solar trailer made by a company called Tier One Solar. A sun-tracking mini solar farm equipped with its own inverter and pair of large batteries. Charged up on cheap domestic solar power before we left, we simply set the rig up in a convenient camp, went off to play in the Beetle and then returned when we needed a charge. It kept itself topped up in-between, and ... worked. Guilt-free desert playtime. Obviously probably less efficient in a cloudy forest in the UK, but the theory is sound. Again, not overlanding or serious off-road point-to-point travel, but for getting mildly away from it all, a solid solution originally invented for instant power in disaster areas or inaccessible places.
Obviously, the Beetle wasn’t the only thing we took, because Hard Cell is about extremes, and the Beetle was charismatic but a bit genial. So, we also used the trailer to charge up a thing called a Manx. Now this is a serious bit of off-road kit (still Beetle-based, weirdly), with very expensive bouncy suspension and Tesla power. Up to 600bhp of Tesla power. On desert tracks and wide open tracts of land? Terrifying. Sideways. Busy. And some of the best fun I’ve ever had in a car.
And the best bit? We only really scratched the surface of all this stuff. In the next two years we’ll see more traditional trucks from the likes of Ford, Rivian and Bollinger - all capable of 200-400-miles of range - as much as you’d get from a contemporary ICE vehicle. There’s a company called Zerolabs Classic Electric Vehicles that restomods 1960s Ford Broncos to be a hundred times better than the originals and equips them with electric drivetrains - once they get the requisite batteries, they’ll be more than capable of mini-adventures. The conclusions we came to? Well, at the execution and delivery of off-road adventuring, electric beats petrol. They aren’t perfect, and the technology feels slightly immature and endlessly improvable, but once some of the wrinkles are ironed out, off-road adventures might become the preserve of vehicles powered only by electrons."
Hard Cell is available exclusively via MotorTrend on Demand, a new streaming service for motoring shows