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A lead acid trip with Mr. Filios

You’ve probably heard of Tesla, the electric vehicle pioneers. And maybe you’ve heard of Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO. He’s the world’s wealthiest person. Well, back in 1976, when Elon Musk was only five years old, John Filios of Bedford hopped into his fully-electric VW Beetle and silently glided seven miles to work at Burlington High School.

John Filios' electric VW Beetle

Here he is in 1975, bottom left.

BHS industrial arts teachers in the 1970s

America was still smarting from the gas crisis that caused prices to spike, supplies to evaporate, and long lines to form at gas stations, like this one on Route 3A in Billerica in 1973. The Sure station in the foreground had run out of gas. The cars were waiting for gas at another station way down the street when Burlington’s Jeff Benrimo shot this picture.

Gas line Pinehurst, Billerica 1973. Photo credit: Jeff Benrimo

So Filios decided to sidestep the whole scene. He bought an old VW Beetle and replaced the internal organs with an electric retrofit kit from Corbin-Gentry of Connecticut. It didn’t go very far on a charge, and didn’t go very fast, and recharging took all night, but it used NO GAS.

Corbin-Gentry electric Beetle flyer

This meant ripping out the back seats and packing in 800 pounds of gear, including a dozen lead-acid batteries. Those are normally used to start vehicles, not propel them. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

John Filios' electric VW Beetle interior

Daughter Elena recalls:

My dad was a character. He was self-taught, curious and willing to take a risk. He became interested in alternative energy in the 70s. The 1973 oil crisis was difficult. Gasoline was difficult to get. There were long lines at gas stations. Eventually, the state instituted a system that was based on license plate numbers (odd/even). Topping off your gas tank was discouraged. My parents got gas at Hanscom Air Force base because dad was a former lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

Typical of many New England homes, they used oil heat. Mom and dad had always tried to save energy in heating the house, but the heating-oil companies cut their allotment by a certain percent in 1974. Prices went up, but the heating oil company was also limiting the amount they would deliver. Prior to 1973, they had kept the house at 68 during the day, and cooler at night. With the rationing, they kept the house at 65 or cooler during the day, and got a programmable thermostat.

John Filios with EV Beetle project, Burlington MA

They got insulated curtains and researched various ways to keep the heat from escaping from the windows, finding that wooden valances closed at the top of the curtain were very effective, since air was stopped from circulating up and over the curtain. They installed a wood-burning stove in the family room so they could keep the thermostat low and heat the one room to a more comfortable temperature. It also was an alternative source of heat if the power went out. Dad insulated the attic more with fiberglass insulation. He also took courses in solar energy, and energy conservation. He replaced all the windows with low-e double-paned glass. They were very expensive. Coincidently, his old house now has solar panels on the roof.
So Dad began working to retrofit VWs for electric power. He finished two. He organized his company, Jayeff Electric, to sell them. I think he sold one car/kit. He used electric motors, possibly recycled airplane motors. The second car, he drove himself, around town. The batteries were very heavy and took up the whole back seat. Only two people could ride in the car at once. When we cleared out his house we found five battery chargers.
The cars were very quiet. You had to use the horn more to make yourself noticed in traffic because it was so quiet. The car could not go over 45 mph, and did not go far on one charge. I rode as a passenger once or twice. It was a smooth ride and very quiet.
John Filios' electric VW Beetle 2
Daughter Peggy says the car broke down on Route 128 one winter, and another car bumped it before it could be towed away — but who said being an early adopter is easy?

5 thoughts on “A lead acid trip with Mr. Filios Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for doing this article! I was at BHS when Mr. Filios was still there and got to see this car in person. I was just telling someone about this recently. It was really cool and amazing that this was done in the 70s.

  2. When I worked at Riggio’s Sunoco in Bedford , John was a frequent visitor, I really enjoyed talking with him. He was one of the most interesting people I ever met

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