Words and Photographs: Mike Humble
Well, it all started a few weeks ago when Keith Adams emailed me asking if I would like to grab a steer or a ride in this year’s RAC-sponsored Future Car Challenge from Brighton to London. After mulling it over for a couple of days I decided, why not? There were a couple of options open to me, but one in particular seemed to be right up my alley. I opted to run with the team entry from Isuzu and UK-based engineering and body making company Paneltex, with its electric powered 7.5 tonne refrigerated box van on the 63 mile journey to London’s Regent Street.
Now I’ll be perfectly honest folks, electric cars don’t flick my switch if you’ll forgive the pun. I much prefer the emotion which comes with an engine, the feeling of power and torque, selecting the gears and all that malarkey. The thought of plugging a vehicle into the mains in the same way as my trusty Nokia mobile, rather than hearing your motor’s exhaust tick, tick ticking with heat after switching off at the end of the day seems a bit sterile and, well, boring in my opinion. However, I have an open mind, being both keen to learn and try new ideas.
Electric commercials though, do make perfect sense, For example, I’m not sure if Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia would be impressed a with V12-powered milk float burbling and wailing through the streets in the darkest hours. Various manufacturers in the past have dabbled in electric traction with mixed success. Notably, Bedford, offered a battery powered-CF van for a while – even Leyland and Seddon both experimented with electric-powered buses. But diesel has always remained king in the commercial world for many good reasons, mainly due to fuel availability, payload, power and general ease of ownership – until now?
You see, what scuppered electric vehicles in the past, was battery technology. Your typical milk float for example would barely have a range of 30 miles with a balls out top speed of a cream curdling 20mph. All this achieved by a huge wet cell battery pack the size of Yorkshire weighing as much as two tonnes. No cab heater or power steering, only the clanking of gold top to provide anything remotely like an in cab sound system. But this is where I once again mention about having an open mind regarding electric propulsion and so on. I was apprehensive as the day loomed for this year’s Future Car Challenge which went as follows:
‘Er indoors shoves me awake – I should have gone to bed earlier but I refused point blank owing to Smokey and the Bandit being a televisual treat the evening before. She reluctantly drives me to Brighton and the weather on a dank dark A23 resembles and Indian monsoon.
I arrive at the uber-posh Brighton Hilton Metropole hotel where I am meeted and greeted by Panelex’s Electrical Engineering Manager, Phil Carrick, for an early breakfast and drivers’ briefing meeting. After signing on as an official driver, I’m actually quite looking forward to it all following Phil’s infectious confidence and description of the truck.
The taxi arrives and it is still bordering on torrential rain as we make our way to the start line on Madeira Drive which is, ironically, alongside Volks electric railway. The other 33 participants are neatly standing like soldiers and our vehicle stands out amongst the pack owing the sheer size and eye catching livery. Hollyoaks and Coronation Street star (Paul, the fireman) Tony Hirst who is also taking part comes over for a chat and is bowled over with the truck. It transpires he is a true petrolhead and also possesses an MSA Competition Licence – a bloody nice chap, too. As the daylight comes up, the rain stops too.
The start procession commences. We are all each sent away in 30 second intervals and, after a brisk interview with Penny Mallory, the Lord Mayor of Brighton waves the chequered flag and we’re away. I give a near silent whimper of anxiety as the 7.5 tonne truck quietly, yet swiftly leaps off the line into the thick of Brighton’s A23 traffic. With Phil not knowing the area I read the pace notes and directions aloud trying my best not impersonate Tony Mason.
We arrive at the splash and dash point at Crawley Engineering College for a leg stretch and yet more interviews from TV and local radio. Phil tells me more about the engineering of the truck and about how Isuzu are fully supportive via the dealer chain. Interestingly, numerous examples are in service with Ocado and, as I take one last puff of a growler and swig down a strong sweet cup of tea, I rather nervously hop up into the driver’s seat for the final leg of the journey to the London Imperial College. Before departure, Phil goes through the important and complicated driving technique instructions – ‘turn the key, select drive and put your foot on the accelerator’.
The route takes us via Gatwick and into Reigate where we are met with the locally notorious Reigate Hill. Without any fuss, the vehicle romps up the 2 mile gradient easily keeping within the 40mph speed limit and I am surprised… no cancel that, astonished at just how well-engineered and easy to drive this truck is. It operates and feels just like any other 7.5 tonner with an automatic gearbox but without the noise or vibration of the engine. Even the cab heater functions just like any other – this truck is not just easy to pilot, it’s downright fun and has a range of 14o miles from the dry cell lithium Ion energy pack, all from a 10 hour charge – amazing!
The rest of the journey involved a little blast along the M25 where it kept up with the motorway traffic with ease. We battled through the West London traffic and arrived at the technical finish at the Imperial College. A dim witted security guard mistakes us initially for a delivery lorry and refuses us both entry.
After being put in his place, we silently cross the line and the fuss of an electric truck commences once again. After grabbing a coffee, I bump into Mr. Motormouth himself, Mike Rutherford, and we have a chat. He asks me what I am driving, comes for a quick look and seems both staggered and impressed, promising a catch up chat after the RAC escort to Regent Street.
After a right royal slog through heavy traffic via Park Lane and Picadilly, I am again impressed at just how stress-free the journey has been and we arrive in London’s Regent Street with plenty of power in reserve along with the rest of the participants. Once again the sight of an electric truck draws the crowds. Tony Hirst meets up with us once more and Mike Rutherford makes a bee line for a more in depth look at the vehicle. After meeting the Paneltex Group Sales Manager and Managing Director we retire for lunch then view the other participating entries .
Technically, we could not take part in the event so far as consumption of energy was concerned owing to the fact we were 4 tons heavier than the maximum category criteria, but the day was all about awareness and education of alternative energy. For the record, the Renault Zoe won the event with the 2012 Car of the Year, the Vauxhall Ampera, coming in second.
Jaguar Cars Limited entered a trio of hybrid XJ_e saloons and Morgan participated with their striking yellow concept ‘Plus E’ model. An extra treat came in the form of a classic car motor show and the veteran vehicles that were taking part in the traditional veteran London to Brighton Rally the very next day to commemorate the abolition of the Red Flag Act in 1896.
Paneltex MD Chris Berridge was also taking part in the vintage event with a beautiful French made 1901 Darracq along with his wife, Jayne. So after a very long and enjoyable day out, I kindly declined an invitation to the evening’s dinner function at the RAC Club and made my way home thanks again to electric traction – only this time via London Underground and Southern Trains.
Many thanks are due Paneltex for the invitation and for changing any preconception I may have had regarding alternative energy vehicles.