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Talk of the Archives


On August 26th, a transcontinental race began between Caltech and MIT—pitting Caltech's 1958 Volkswagen bus against MIT's 1968 Corvair, each modified to operate on battery power alone. The Caltech crew left for Cambridge, MA, while the MIT group hit the road for Pasadena. The race would end on September 4th, with Caltech's arrival in Cambridge.


Shown above: Wally Rippel's converted 1958 Volkswagen bus


Initially, the challenge was the brainchild of Caltech undergrad Wally E. Rippel (BS '68 in physics) to see who could develop the fastest and most reliable all-electric vehicle. Though MIT would cross the finish line first, arriving in Pasadena at 3:26 pm (PDT) on September 2nd, due to penalty time accrued by MIT for towing, replaced motor, overheated batteries and other issues, Caltech would be declared the winner by 30 minutes by the Motor Design magazine judges. Both vehicles took over 200 hours to complete the race, and both needed repairs during it. However, Caltech's ''Voltswagon'' made the entire trip without being towed once, while MIT's Corvair had to be towed numerous times—including the last 130 miles, breaking down just outside of Victorville. Caltech arrived at MIT on September 4th, crossing the finish line at 7:46 am (EDT)—under their own power!

The details of their adventure are recounted in the October 1968 issue of Caltech's magazine Engineering and Science

Shown above: Wally Rippel on the cover of Engineering and Science, October 1968.


Shown above: Caltech students Wally Rippel (left), Ron Gremban (center) and George Swartz (right), upon their arrival at MIT, September 4, 1968.


To honor both teams, a dinner was arranged a few days later in New York City by Caltech alum Victor Wouk (MS '40, PhD '42 in electrical engineering)—an early pioneer in electric, and especially hybrid, vehicles, who later converted a 1972 Buick Skylark to a hybrid.

To read more regarding this, and his other achievements, Wouk's 2004 oral history interview is available online. And available at the Caltech Archives are Wouk's personal papers, comprised of 70 boxes which contain correspondence, publications, patents, research and consulting, lectures, and expert testimonies.


Shown above: Wouk with his 1972 hybrid Buick Skylark at the EPA test site, 1974.


After Wally Rippel's graduation from Caltech and an MS in electrical engineering from Cornell, he continued his commitment to the development of electric motors. In the 1970s and 1980s he joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's technical staff, focusing on developing batteries and electric vehicle drives based on induction motors. And in the eighties, Rippel along with over a dozen other Caltech graduates, including Alan Cocconi (BS '80)—his future partner at AC Propulsion, Inc.—consulted for AeroVironment in the development of General Motors' Sunraycer, a solar-powered vehicle designed to compete in the 1987 World Solar Challenge—a race across Australia, which they won.  AeroVironment founder and Caltech alum Paul MacCready (MS ’48 in physics, PhD ’52 in aeronautical engineering) put together a winning team led by one of his chief engineers, Caltech alum Alec Brooks (MS ’77, PhD ’81).

The full account can be read in MacCready's ''Sunraycer Odyssey,''
Winter 1988 Engineering and Science.


Shown above: Paul MacCready with GM's Sunraycer, December 1987


Shown above: On January 1, 1988, Sunraycer leads the Rose Parade down Colorado Boulevard


With the success of the Sunraycer came GM's next project. Once again, MacCready, together with his team of Caltech graduates, helped design the GM Impact, a concept car which would become the prototype for General Motor's EV1—the electric car mass-produced and leased to the public from 1996–1999.

MacCready discusses this, and more, in his 2003 oral history interview, available online. Also available online is the digitized collection of the Paul MacCready Papers.

In 1998, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Great Electric Car Race, Caltech cohosted a daylong celebration, ''Engineering the EV Future.'' This was an opportunity to meet past and current representatives of the electric vehicle community as well as behold the latest concept cars. All the ''usual suspects'' of the past took part—Victor Wouk being not only the driving force for the event but also its master of ceremonies, and Paul MacCready heading one of the panel discussions.-LK

Details regarding the conference are highlighted in the 1998 Caltech News (Vol. 32, #3)

“Engineering the EV Future,” Beckman Institute courtyard, September 3, 1998.
Top photo:  Victor Wouk (right) with unknown man. Bottom photo:  Paul MacCready (left) with Alec Brooks (right).

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