Creating the Model E


Blame it on the price of gasoline last summer, when newly minted driver Micah Agnoli, then a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School junior, pulled up to the gas pump and read the bad news. “Four dollars a gallon, I thought, this is expensive!” he recalled, and the idea for a fuel-efficient car was born.

Last week in garage space donated by Bink’s Auto in Oak Bluffs, Mr. Agnoli and classmate Josh Baker fired up the batteries on the Island’s newest and funkiest electric car. “Aha, we have a working car,” exulted Mr. Baker.

The now-functional two-seater is the work of five months by Messrs. Agnoli, Baker, and Will deBettencourt as a senior project. The boys were quick to acknowledge the contributions of Tisbury resident Steve Solarazza, an expert in carbon-neutral and electric-powered applications, and Will deBettencourt Sr., the owner of Bink’s.

Last Thursday the trio was prepping their project for presentation this week to school adviser and physics teacher Dana Munn. “It’s part of our third and fourth quarter grade,” Mr. Baker said, fussing with a front tire on the creation they have nicknamed the Model E — “It sort of looks like a Model T from the back,” Mr. Baker added.

In typical Island fashion, the men brought the Model E into being with a combination of creativity, hard work, and a little help from their friends.

The power plant — a series of three interconnected car batteries — accelerator, brakes, rear axle, and tires came from a disabled sand-grooming machine donated by Farm Neck golf course in Oak Bluffs. The steering column, front tires, and most of the chassis came from a six-seater “Surrey” touring bike given to them by Phil Hughes at Wheel Happy bike shop in Edgartown.

The neophyte engineers spent 34 days actually building the car and many more days gathering parts and resources for the project. “We were fortunate with donations,” Mr. Baker said. “Vineyard Alternative Auto in Tisbury helped us out and NAPA Auto Parts in Vineyard Haven gave us a $100 credit. Bink’s made this garage space available to us. Woodland Variety and Grill (his family’s business) was our meal plan.”

What began as a “green” idea and a good college resumé-builder morphed into something else along the way. The creators don’t describe themselves as gear heads as much as nascent environmental engineers.

Mr. Agnoli will study environmental engineering at Tufts University in the fall and Mr. Baker will study robotics in an engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in September. Mr. deBettencourt was off-Island attending a family graduation in New Hampshire and was unavailable for comment about his plans.

“This started as a way to improve our resumés and get a grade, but it’s much more than that now,” Mr. Agnoli said. “It will cost 40 cents to recharge this motor compared with 60 bucks to fill your truck with gas.”

“We learned a lot about electricity. And we ‘fried’ a few parts along the way,” Mr. Baker said, adding that the team also learned how to weld, to sandblast, and to paint, courtesy of Jason Cournoyer of Bruno’s Inc. in Edgartown, who mentored the team on those skills.

Last week, the trio turned their attention to cosmetics, rendering the Model E relatively beautiful. Padded seats and floor carpeting will be installed, and a utility box for tools and cargo fitted above the rear motor.

And, as a perk of sponsorship, decals and logos of donating companies and organizations will be affixed to the mighty Model E.

Educators say that a benefit to society and the application of learning to use are among the goals of education. That seems to be the case with this project

Having built the Model E, the designers are now considering its applications. The vehicle will reach top speeds of 10 to 15 miles an hour with a range of at least 10-15 miles on a charge. “It’s designed as an eco-friendly Island utility vehicle,” Mr. Baker said. “It’ll work best in flat, open space — golf courses, warehouses, and farms, for example.”

And benefit to society? “My goal is to form a green tech company,” Mr. Agnoli said. “I’m into trucks, but the design is bad, detrimental to the environment, particularly its use of fossil fuels.”

Closer to home, the boys are facing pragmatic concerns — should they keep or sell the Model E, for instance? And can they actually use it, rather than just exhibit it, in the meantime. “We have jobs this summer working traffic control with the Edgartown Police Department. We want to see if we can use it to commute to work,” Mr. Agnoli said.