Charging Ahead at 98

HowardDunholter I recently had the honor of dining with fellow Tesla roadster owner Howard Dunholter, who at 98 years of age is clearly not your “typical” Tesla enthusiast. Howard’s interest in EVs began way back in 1921 when he was a ten-year-old tot. He remembers watching lamp-like electric horseless carriages gliding through his hometown of Cincinnati as the cars delivered local ladies to church services. Howard never forgot those silent, crystalline cars. “They had a lot of glass and class.” It was the beginning of his life-long fascination with electric vehicles.

So in 1996 when GM began to lease its first EV1 electric cars (with lead acid battery packs) Howard jumped at the chance to lease his own. Howard and his wife Kay adored their little EV1 from the get-go and predictably abandoned the gas car. As Howard explains, “The EV1 became our car of choice. We drove that EV1 all the time.” Howard recalls that when they first got the car, “There were lots of places to plug in around town.” With a far-away look in his eyes, he talks about the road trip that Kay and he took from their home in Palos Verdes to visit friends in San Diego: “We plugged in at Costco stores along the way. One of the best adventures we ever had. We used that EV1 for everything.”

He recounts the time Kay zoomed over to LAX in the EV1 to pick up their two teenage nieces. By stacking the giggling girls on top of one another and cramming luggage into the trunk, Kay transformed the EV1 into a temporary airport shuttle. He emphasizes that “GM did an incredibly good job of designing the thing. Naturally we weren’t too pleased when GM took the car away.”

In 2006, Howard — then an active 95-year-old fellow — met former CEO Tesla Motors co-founder Martin Eberhard at the LA Auto Show. Most “sensible” folks would opine that 95 is way too old to even consider buying a wickedly fast, ground-hugging sports car — electric or otherwise. But most of those folks wouldn’t have been thinking about electric cars since 1921 either. Finding the 100% all-electric Tesla roadster irresistible, Howard got in line to receive the super-charged sports car. He confidently slapped down a $50,000 deposit. And then he waited — and waited.

Sadly, in the two years before Howard actually get the glacier blue Tesla, his beloved bride of 50 years died. “Kay never got to see or ride in our Tesla.” Compounding that wrenching loss — and during the long wait — Howard had a stroke and lost vision in one eye along with his ability to drive. Then, ironically, the racy new roadster was delivered. Howard laments, “At that time I didn’t have much to look forward to.”

But Howard accepted delivery of his Tesla anyway, and then he unexpectedly started to look forward to and even enjoy letting friends and family drive his fancy new electric car. And, of course, he certainly didn’t mind being chauffeured hither and yon in the stunning blue EV either. He promptly and proudly pioneered 110V charging for local condos through his Long Beach condo association. Howard’s son, Paul Dunholter, currently shares custody of the “blue streak.” Howard’s two granddaughters, Bridget and Megan, are thrilled to their teenage toes with their grandfather’s car.

Howard Dunholter Tesal Bridget has been at the wheel of her Grandpa’s Tesla in a large parking lot under her Dad’s watchful supervision as she practices for her California driver’s license exam. At 16 she is presumably the youngest Tesla driver; Howard the oldest. 14-year-old Megan admonishes her grandfather, “You’d better not sell that car before I’m old enough to drive it!”

Given this heroic EV advocate’s rare 88-year history with electric cars, I thought he’d be just the guy to ask about the future of electric transportation. Howard asserts that “The future for EVs is bright. Everyone will want to drive electric cars. People will prefer electric cars in the coming decades just like they did back in the early 1900’s. We need to bring back more infrastructure, of course, but this time there won’t be newly-invented electric starters on gas cars to put those electric cars out of business.”

Howard made me promise to include his expression of gratitude to former Tesla Motors CEO and co-founder Martin Eberhard for two enormous accomplishments: 1) Having the inspiration to develop an electric sports car and then actually doing it 2) Moving Howard’s historical hero, Nikola Tesla, out of 20th Century obscurity and into the light of the 21st Century by naming the first mass-produced electric vehicle to hit the highway in a decade — naming that car the Tesla.

Posted by Linda Nicholes

Tesla roadster photo courtesy of Paul and Patricia Dunholter

Special thanks to Eric Swenson, Will Kostman and Stefano Paris

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