Today, I went to visit someone I know locally who owns a 1920s car. After playing with said old car for a bit, we then got discussing electric vehicles. A few minutes later, I was driving a Subaru Domingo, converted in Finland by a company called Elcat for the Finnish Post Office – or Posti – and other largely-Finnish companies. A Japanese electric van with a Finnish twist.
You may be wondering why the Finnish Post Office needed right-hand drive vans. Well, when you think about it, in countries that drive on the right, it saves the postman having to step out into the road doesn’t it? That’s why Belgian Post Office 2CV vans were right-hand drive. Many Post vehicles in Scandinavia still are RHD.
Mr Postman got other benefits too. Like a lever control for the winding window, that allowed it to be rapidly lowered and raised – perfect for reaching an arm out to fill a postbox. Why even open the door? Well, Finland gets cold, so opening the door lets more heat out. That’s why despite being electric, this van actually has a petrol-burning heater. Still far fewer tailpipe emissions than if it was fully petrol-powered.
So, what’s it actually like to drive? Hop behind the wheel and all seems entirely normal. There is a key where you’d expect it. Turning the ignition on makes fans hum in the back. There’s a conventional gearlever too, connected to a conventional gearbox. There’s even a clutch pedal. To make the vehicle move, select a gear, then just press the throttle. You can use first, but second will do on the flat. Away you hum! Pick-up is brisk, as you’d expect as electric motors deliver all of their torque straight away. There’s no clutch-slipping needed – you use that pedal only to change gear. Apparently, third is as high as you should go, as the motor doesn’t have enough grunt for higher gears. That’s still enough for a top speed approaching 50mph on the flat. Trying to extract grunt out of an electric motor at low speeds will go horribly wrong – it’ll just burn the motor out. A display of LEDs indicates battery consumption. Red is bad, orange ok, green is better! Not as hi-tech as the Tree display in a Nissan Leaf, but better than nothing. Don’t forget – this vehicle was brand new in about 1995. It’s much older technology.
There is no battery read out, which seems a bit odd, but it does ‘misfire’ to warn you it’s getting low on juice. Just like a car running out of fuel! There’s a good engine braking effect, as a regeneration mode kicks in when you come off the throttle. This uses your momentum to put some energy back into the batteries. Conventional brakes are there if you need to stop more swiftly.
Sure, it’s a compromised vehicle. Hills slow it dramatically, there’s a hefty battery pack in the middle of the load bay and the range isn’t very high – 50 miles would probably be about it. But it’s still good fun to drive and I suspect very practical for a large percentage of journeys. I was intrigued. It was an unexpected driving experience but entertaining nonetheless. It hasn’t done anything to dampen my electric desires that’s for sure!
The van lives at Blaenglanhanog Cottage, a delightful self-catering abode hidden in the Welsh hills. The major bonus is that the cottage has dedicated charge points for electric cars! (as does the village of Carno itself) They get used too – apparently one owner visited in his Nissan Leaf from Croydon. Who says range is an issue?