The High Road: Charge across Canada

‘Well, if you’re stuck,” the email read, “I’ll drive it out for you.” The next morning, the reply came back early: “Are you serious, Dad?”

And that’s how Alf Cassidy, 82, found himself behind the wheel of a bright-red, two-door Tesla Roadster, whizzing across the Prairies. Heading to the next town, a GPS scotch-taped to the dashboard, one eye on his rapidly disappearing range meter, and wondering if the next charger might be out of service too. A father’s work is never done.
Having spent decades keeping huge 220-tonne diesel-electric haulage trucks running in the Gibraltar copper mines north of his hometown of Williams Lake, Alfred Cassidy is deeply interested in smaller electric cars, too. As a member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, he’s a member of a very active mailing list, and when a Tesla Roadster cropped up for sale, he immediately passed the info on to his son-in-law.

Les Keias had been looking longingly at a Tesla, but had his eye out for a good deal. When details on the sleek red machine reached his inbox, he and his wife Bridget (Alf’s daughter), knew this was the one they’d been hunting for.

The car was being sold off as part of a government surplus auction in Ottawa, and was going under the gavel fast. A few quick calls and the Roadster had found its new owners — but it had to be off the property in five days.

Unfortunately, the haulage companies were booked up for weeks, and you can’t simply store this car in a rented garage as it needs to be charged up to prevent battery damage. Thus, Alf found himself with a plane ticket and a mission.

Hang on a sec — what’s the Canadian government doing with a two-seater electric toy in their inventory? Given the current climate on the Hill, were our elected officials swanning about town and then doing brake-stands in front of the House of Commons?

No, actually — the history on this particular Tesla is even more interesting, as Cassidy discovered when he met up with fellow EV enthusiast Doug George in the first day of travel, Sept. 18. According to George, who had an identical car, the Roadster was in fact the very first Tesla in Canada, bought in by the Department of Transportation for testing and the eventual creation of electric vehicle regulations.

Technically, the car is a 2010 Tesla Roadster 2.0. Based on the nimble Lotus Elise, the battery-powered Roadster is something of a hotrod compared to the polished finish of the current media darling Model S sedan. Think of it as a plug-in AC Cobra, a featherweight English sports car with a muscular American powertrain shoehorned beneath the bodywork.

Just because this car runs on electrons doesn’t mean it’s not a rocket. Official zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour times are under four seconds, with a single-speed transmission handling around 300 horsepower and right-now electric torque of 295 pound-feet.

Is it quick? “Oh, when you want to step onto a highway, you don’t have any trouble,” Alf says with a chuckle.

Before setting out he armed himself with eight hours of research and mapping of charge points, made possible thanks to a Newfoundland-to-Vancouver run in a similar Tesla by EV infrastructure company Sun Country Highway (visit to check out the map).

Alf stepped off the plane in Ottawa, hailed a taxi and walked right up to his cramped two-seater home for the next two weeks. The Roadster was sitting off in a corner of the massive warehouse, cordoned off by pylons so that nobody would accidentally back a forklift into it.

With papers signed and a transport permit good for 10 days, he hit the highway due west towards Peterborough, Ont., hoping to avoid Toronto’s rush hour. First, though, he had to buy a map.

Unfortunately, a wrong turn or two, and he was forced to abandon the circumvention of Toronto and head to a likely looking charge point in the Yorkdale mall. It turned out to be situated right next to the Tesla dealership, but a row of Model S sedans were blocking the fast-charging outlets.

Cassidy backed the car in near the lower-amperage commercial chargers, but just as he pulled out his credit card, an extremely excited Tesla salesman came running up, followed by an older couple. As it turned out, this enthusiastic fellow had just taken an order from the trailing pair on a Model S, and as he’d also never seen a Roadster in the sheet metal, was fairly excited.

“He was practically dancing,” is how Alf puts it, and a car was instantly moved to make room for the little Roadster.

The driving plan was simple. With just under 6,000 km to the final destination of Sidney, Cassidy would get up early and hit the road before breakfast. First plug-in of the day would happen usually after 200 or 250 km, and he’d grab a leisurely bite while the Tesla replenished its batteries over two or three hours. But isn’t the range on the car more like 300 or 350 km?

“I’m a chicken!” Alf laughs. “I just did not want to get separated from my car somewhere in the Prairies, with it stuck on a flat-deck.”

Keeping an extra 100 km in range or so was the aim, and he never saw less than 80 km or so remaining on the central screen. Good thing too, as the trip wasn’t all smooth sailing. The cop-magnet appeal of a red-painted roadster was simply too much for Ontario’s boys in blue to resist, and they pulled Alf over three times before he left the province. Not for speeding: one checked his paperwork and the other two simply wanted a closer look at the car.

The chargers were all sorts too, and with the path of Sun Country’s Tesla trip laid out, Alf would have to get to the town and then tour around, asking for directions until he found the place. One charger was tucked underneath a stairwell in a hotel. Another was inside an electrical contractor’s workshop and was only open during business hours.

But there were oddly Canadian features to this trip. For one thing, most of the motels Alf stayed at had exterior plugs for people to hook up their block heaters. In one instance though, the outlet was temperature-controlled (it only kicked in below -20 C) and he and the night manager had to scour the place looking for extension cords to splice together to use a less accessible socket.

“The next town,” he said, “I bought myself an extension cord.”

Then there was the odd charger that didn’t work, but with power held in reserve, this didn’t prove to be too much of a problem. A more serious issue arose when the speedometer started wandering around and then quit on the highway. Cassidy sought refuge in that most Canadian of institutions, a Tim Hortons.

As luck would have it, he was barely in the parking lot five minutes before a curious electrical contractor wandered up and provided the solution. “You’ve got a GPS, don’t you?” In proper Red Green fashion, a little tape and the portable GPS now sat in the gauge cluster, displaying an accurate speed and avoiding any more brushes with the law.

There were other pitfalls too, though nothing major. Just outside Winnipeg, the smooth tarmac gave way to poorly repaired cracks. Tesla’s Roadster is a stiffly sprung sports car with low-profile tires. When you’re 18, that sort of thing is excellent, but when you’re 80, it’s just plain aggravating, with the car hammering away over seams in the pavement.

An unplanned extra day of travel, thanks to a out-of-service charger, required stopping to extend the transportation permit. Alf also overnighted in Brooks, Alta., having forgotten about the town’s massive stockyards — “I wondered what barnyard I had wandered into!”

Fourteen days of driving later, and a day-and-a-half of rest at his son’s place outside Calgary, the Tesla Roadster breezed over the Rockies and into the Lower Mainland. Now joined by Pat, his wife of 53 years, Alf did the trip from Calgary in three days, checking in at the Tesla store to get the speedo issue solved (a five-minute operation).

The last leg included the ferry from Tsawwassen and soon enough the keys were handed over to his beaming daughter and son-in-law in the seaside town of Sidney.

Cassidy kept meticulous records the whole way, and his log book reads like the records of a sailing ship. Chargers used, rates of amperage soaked up, the weather, the distance travelled — it’s all been collected and collated for other VEVA members who might attempt a similar pan-Canada trip.

Will Alf ever own an electric car of his own?

“Well, a Leaf might work around town,” he says. “I keep talking about a Model S, but my wife’s not too sure.”

Cross-country road trips. Adventure on the open road. Making unexpected connections and impromptu friends. A wife who’s just a little bit concerned about letting her husband get his hands on a new toy.

The electric car might be the future of motoring in many ways. Seems to me like the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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