07.21.2010 - by Plug In America
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

17 comments on “Charging Ahead at 98”
  1. Linda says:

    Peder,

    I want to thank you belatedly for the great suggestion. A podcast interview of Howard is up on Plug In America’s website at:

    http://www.pluginamerica.org/podcasts/88-year-love-affair

    Give a listen!

    Linda

  2. Paul and Patricia Dunholter says:

    Thanks for the great article Linda. He really enjoyed spending the day with you. We have been sharing it with everyone and he has been able to reconnect with many family members and old friends. His grand daughter will be starting to drive next week, so we will keep you posted as the two of them head down the highway. 98 and 16 traveling at 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds.

  3. Lewis May says:

    Congratulations! What a heart-warming article about a man who worked his way up the corporate ladder to be at the top of the aerospace and aerodynamics business. His friends refer to Dr. Dunholter (yes, he’s a Doctor of Physics) as “The Rocket Scientist.”
    He always was a deep thinker, and his mind is sharp as ever. Howard dearly loves to brag about the new Tesla down to every detail under its’ EV skin. We should all be so energetic as he is at 98 ..
    Kathi and Lewis May

  4. What a great story.

    Thanks, Linda, for the sensitive and percipient comments and due notice of this great story and wonderful family.

    Let’s hope that the EV saga continues on a happier note, and, despite the failure of any new proposed EV to meet the performance envelope of the 1997 Toyota NiMH RAV4-EV, perhaps the auto-oil companies will be honest, this time, unlikely as it seems.

    One correction: due credit should be give to the EV1, and to Alan Cocconi and the Impact crew, for developing the technology later reconstructed into the Tesla Roadster.

    It was Tom Gage who adapted Lithium commodity 18-650 batteries (used in electric reconnaisance aircraft at Aerovironment) for use in the T-ZERO to replace Optima lead batteries which had been derated by purchaser and GM-affiliate Johnson Controls. While Tesla and its team adapted the technology, putting it in a sports car, upping the power to 185 kW and so forth, it draws its inspiration from that original painstaking Mosfet-driven work in Cocconi’s driveway and the teamwork that GM tried to prevent resulting ultimately in the EV1.

    It’s a continuous and convoluted story; past and ongoing efforts of the oil-auto monopoly to retain obsolete and obviously flawed technology have so far been almost completely successful.

    Great dudes like Dunholter are an inspiration amidst almost universal lies, misinformation and misdirection.

  5. Peder Norby says:

    Linda,

    Great article on a great man.

    As a planner, preservationist and Mini-E driver, I would like to suggest an oral history be done on Howard and then posted.

    Your article touched the surface of this incredible man and inspired, I am sure there is a lot more to the story and readers including future generations would benifit by publication of a more intensive oral history. Hearing Howard in his own voice and reading his transcript would be fascinating and valuble. He truly is a pioneer.

    As a research project the Hwy 101 association (101 is now a state historic hwy) conducted similar oral histories in so cal cities where hwy 101 is now a local road.

    Peder

  6. Linda says:

    Karen, I am pleased to know that what I wrote really does reflect Howard’s story. I’ve been hoping to hear from a family member. Thank you!

  7. Karen Dunholter says:

    Linda, Howard is my great uncle and you captured his story perfectly! It is very sad that my great Aunt Kay was not there to see it because they did everything together. But I know she is smiling!

  8. Ian Taras says:

    Nice blog & class act nod to Martin as well!

  9. LEAFguy says:

    Great story! It truly shows that a long-term commitment to electric vehicles has influenced not only one individual, but Howard’s extended family. I’m sure that that influence will extend to others through these family members as well. It also shows how the influence of one person can make a difference on local conditions to embrace new technologies that are environmentally friendly – such as the inclusion of charging options in his condo association.

    As I’m sure you are already aware, the new Nissan LEAF will be debuting in five select markets later this year, including Southern California. In fact, ECOtotality has just announced that some Southern Californian’s have been accepted into The EV Project – a federally funded project to help jump-start the incorporation of electric vehicles throughout the country. To find out more, please check out http://livingleaf.info. Living LEAF is a consumer-oriented, San Diego based website seeking to answer the question – Is the Nissan LEAF the right vehicle for me?

  10. Linda – How lucky of you to have met Howard Dunholter and how wonderful of you to write this beautiful piece about him and his love affair with electric cars.
    Steve

  11. Linda says:

    Gracias for your comment. Means the WORLD

    Electric Momma

  12. Robin Sol says:

    WoW! and I get to call you Mom. Amazing Blog….

  13. Stefano Paris says:

    Beautiful story, incredible history. I agree with Colby this is one of your best blog entries Linda!

  14. Awesome blog, Linda! One of the best yet. What a great story.

  15. Linda says:

    Thanks! Howard Dunholter has an amazing life story. Aside from his early and lasting interest in electric cars, he worked in the aerospace industry. He was actually part of the team that put John Glen into space. What a privilege it is to know Howard.

  16. Paul Scott says:

    Agreed, this is a great story. What a rare fund, someone whose life spans the time from the early EVs to the Telsa Roadster, including the EV1 days.

  17. will says:

    Hey Linda,
    This is a FANTASTIC article …. it really captures the spirit of the man.
    Your article made me feel both happy and sad … happy that he has had the joy of electric cars …and of having his Tesla … yet it’s so sad he couldn’t enjoy it with his wife Kay.
    Thanks for interviewing Howard and for writing this wonderful piece.

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