Cheap Electric Car Drives Again with Charger Repair

If someone sent you an advert for an electric car with a price too low to pass up, what would you do? [Leadacid44] was in that lucky situation, and since it was crazy cheap, bought the car.

Of course, there’s always a problem of some kind with any cheap car, and this one was no exception. In this case, making it ‘go’ for any reasonable distance was the problem. Eventually a faulty battery charging system was diagnosed and fixed, but not before chasing down a few other possibilities. While the eventual solution was a relatively simple one the write-up of the car and the process of finding it makes for an interesting read.

The car in question is a ZENN, a Canadian-made and electric-powered licensed version of the French Microcar MC2 low-speed city car with a 72 volt lead-acid battery pack that gives a range of about 40 miles and a limited top speed of 25 miles per hour. Not a vehicle that is an uncommon sight in European cities, but very rare indeed in North America. Through the write-up we are introduced to this unusual vehicle, the choice of battery packs, and to the charger that turned out to be defective. We’re then shown the common fault with these units, a familiar dry joint issue from poor quality lead-free solder, and taken through the repair.

We are so used to lithium-ion batteries in electric cars that it’s easy to forget there is still a small niche for lead-acid in transportation. Short-range vehicles like this one or many of the current crop of electric UTVs can do without the capacity and weight savings, and reap the benefit of the older technology being significantly cheaper. It would however be fascinating to see what the ZENN could achieve with a lithium-ion pack and the removal of that speed limiter.

If your curiosity is whetted by European electric microcars, take a look at our previous feature n the futuristic Hotzenblitz, from Germany.

58 thoughts on “Cheap Electric Car Drives Again with Charger Repair

      1. There’s a British modified car person who’s done a beautiful job on a Microcar or a Ligier, I forget which. All lacquer through net curtains on the paintwork, “stance” etc. It’s really done as a joke, at which it succeeds very well.

      1. Make it like a Fuel altered. Chop it just in front of the windshield and stretch the wheelbase by lengthening the front end. Put a blown 426 hemi and leave the engine and front end open. Add a fuel cell between the engine and front axle and run it on E85. Don’t forget the wing on back and smaller one up front to keep the fuel altered look.

  1. Poor ZENN, I knew one of the people that worked for them in Saint-Jérôme, where it was made, but could not be driven. It took several years, and public outrage brought on by a CBC TV documentary before the vehicle was approved to be sold in Canada. By then it was far too late to save it.

    1. In Canada, we’re kind of dumb in that way. Foot, meet bullet. See also AVRO Arrow.

      As per the blog, the actual repair turned out to be a known flaw in the charger that was easily repaired. This sort of simple problem happens much more than one might think:
      – A friend got a sweet price on a Datsun 240Z that just wasn’t performing. Problem turned out to be an inline fue filter that no-one had ever changed
      – I have a fancy bench adjustable power supply that was bought cheap as not working. Problem was a blown (and I mean blown as in kaboom) electrolytic capacitor. One new capacitor later, I have a fancy working power supply
      – Our dishwasher wouldn’t start. Problem? Flaky contact where the membrane switch strip connects to the controller board. (Grrr stupid cheap appliance makers!). Easy fix.

      Moral – a little knowledge plus taking the occasional small risk on a broken thing can often pay off. Even the failures provide knowledge (and a box of parts)

      1. Though don’t forget to factor in your time, and the cost of the ones you can’t fix (plus the time wasted on them, plus disposal costs…)
        Sadly this is what means fixing stuff is often not worth it.

        1. True… but what I was trying to emphasize is that often, the problem that caused someone to offload the item is close to trivial, and take little time to fix. I also think that, within reasonable limits, the knowledge gained by attempting to solve the problem, or hack around it, is worth the time invested. This IS HaD…

          1. Hell, yes. I refused to call a technician to fix our Fisher & Paykel top-loader. Funny beeps and LED sequence, user manual says “Call a techician”. 10 minutes research, I found a service manual online, the error code was saying “replace the out-of-balance switch”. One phone call, AUD$24, and 2 days later I had my new OOB switch. Not really a hack, of course, but a problem that was trivial to fix, and would have cost me upwards of AUD$150 otherwise. Now I have a PDF of the service manual for future needs.

            I suppose the hack would have been to fabricate my own OOB switch from a microswitch scavenged from another appliance.

      2. Years ago I traded a 13″ TV (CRT, this was 1986) for a fairly nice Volkswagen Rabbit that “no one” could get to run. Supposedly two shops looked at it as well as the owner. I pushed it home (I lived 1/2 block away) A few minutes later I found a corroded fuse holder supplying the electric fuel pump, sanded it and the ends of the spindle fuse, and drove off. The look on the previous owner’s face was priceless… :-) I drove that car for years.

        1. Three rules of fixing things (AvE): 1.) fix easy things first; 2.) don’t trust the guy before you (which includes yourself!); 3.) 90% of problems are human. Many times I have fixed obvious problems should have repaired quickly and easily, except the first (and second) guys missed it. For example faulty brake lights which would blow the fuse intermittently. Two autoelectrical shops had looked at it and both concluded ‘weak fuses’ and then ‘short in the wiring loom’. Neither checked the automarket highstop brake light which was very obviously shorting on the bodywork. If I’d lived by rule two then I would have fixed it in no time.

      3. I concur — I used to purchase “power surged”/”lightning-struck” electronics at insurance auctions really cheap ($2-10 at most). 9/10 times, a replacement fuse was all it took to get a $100 appliance.

    1. Amazingly enough, they are. It was one of my first checks before buying it. In Wisconsin, and as far as I know many other states, it is legal to drive on the road. WI considers it a low-speed vehicle. As a corollary, a golf cart is NOT considered a low-speed vehicle.
      http://wisconsindot.gov/Pages/dmv/vehicles/title-plates/nev.aspx

      As for speed, you’re also correct. It is one of my major concerns. It isn’t exactly the most intimidating thing on the road, and It’s hardly useful to drive such a thing if you can’t keep up with traffic. Luckily I’m able to get between work and my home by using the 25MPH side streets, which it will do without any trouble. However, there are some roads I have to cross that are 30-35 (and the WI unwritten rule is to always drive +5 over the limit!) so I will look into boosting the controller’s programmed limit to 30, just in case I need it for an emergency situation.

      I would have gotten it out on the road yet this year, had the DMV not be 4 weeks behind in processing license plates. Go figure, the day after I pull all of the batteries out and put them in the basement for the winter, the plates arrive in the mail.

        1. just a guess, it’s easier to keep an eye on the batteries, and charge them occasionally. Lead-acid batteries are damaged if they sit discharged for long periods. I show the same love to the batteries on our boat and so far they’ve lasted 9 years.

          1. Also, they don’t store well outdoors in winter climates. When I was young I had to replace my motorcycle battery each spring until I finally smartened up and figured out that I should bring the silly thing indoors each fall.

        2. Exactly for the reasons the others have said, hopefully longer life. From my own motorcycle experience, I found the batteries last much longer if they don’t sit in sub-freezing temperatures throughout winter. It also eliminates any possible drain on them while the car sits for the winter as well.

    2. I can’t speak for the Microcar/ZENN’s construction, but there’s nothing inherrently unsafe about a tiny car if it’s well designed. The Smart, for instance, there’s a microcar that performs better in crash tests than most normal sized cars.

      1. If is important to know that in crash tests cars are only compared to other cars of the same weight class.

        That means a light car can get five stars even if it would be completely crushed by a heavy three star car.

      2. Just because the outside of your body is OK, doesn’t mean your insides haven’t turned to mush.

        While the SMART ForTwo’s “passenger safety cell” can handle a really hefty beating, it still doesn’t de-accelerate the collision very much.

        So it’s not a car I’d like to be in when a heavy SUV or truck barges into it at high speed, but it’s more than safe enough for city-speeds.

        Which is what it was designed for, so keep it away from highways.

        1. I’m aware of this video. And I’d still drive a Smart in preference to a Corsa, they are TRULY nasty! :)

          It’s important to remember that you would be unlikely to survive a 70mph into a concrete wall in ANY road car though.

        2. I enjoyed your crash test performance with the smartfortwo. I’m in the market wanting to afford to buy used 2013 smartfortwo cabriolet . At a price of $10,000.00 not bad for the year and less than 25’000 miles. I putting together a theory to collect used smartfortwo cabriolet electric vehicles. I believe that this car is going to be a collector’s edition and the future investment of owing a Mercedes Benz.

      3. It’s not that I believe it to be unsafe, but rather that I don’t trust the others on the road. :-) While working on the car, and examining the underside etc. it is plainly obvious it is designed for sub-30 MPH operation. For example, there isn’t really a bumper system, per-say. Just some plastic and aluminum framing members. Also, no air-bags. And the car body is absolutely made of just plastic, glass, and aluminum. The doors are entirely plastic!

        Collision safety isn’t a major concern for me, however. I can really only safely drive the car on back-roads and side streets because of the speed limiter, and this precludes most major collision accidents. Minor collision accidents would still certainly be an issue.

        On the other hand, most of the major roads in this town are 30+MPH. Since the car only tops out at 25, if I try to drive those streets, I become a road hazard. If I were to drive on such ‘major’ roads, not only am *I* unsafe from potential accidents, but by driving that slow, I make the road unsafe for others as well. It would be no different driving a normal car too slow on a ‘major’ road.

        1. Most US States have one or more traffic laws or sections in their traffic code relating to “impeding the flow of traffic” or requiring drivers to move over (and even stop) as soon as there’s a safe space to do so on a two lane road if they are not going to go the speed limit.

          Guess which laws or code sections are rarely, if ever, enforced while the police go after speeders? Nevermind the slug that’s holding up a dozen vehicles, causing an unsafe condition as others are passing.

          Even worse are the slowpokes that put the hammer down when you try to pass them. Those jerks need their licenses revoked, but they never get tickets – the cops nail the ones who pass them, for speeding of course.

    3. Thinking like this is why the First World West will never have meaningful changes to its transport paradigm. Our thinking is basically limited to full-out cars and SUVs because anything else would be “unsafe” and subject to immediate dismissal.

      A 3-wheeled *crew cab moped* like this machine: http://hl-ebike.en.alibaba.com/product/60542829263-803812520/2016_NEW_models_of_electric_tricycles_pickup_steering_wheel_Double_rows_with_4_seat_1100007.html

      would solve 99.9% of my transportation needs in and around the area where I live. It’s electric, enclosed, and has both cargo and passenger room, and moves around 20mph easily. Source: My grandparents and their friends in China all have, or had, some variant of one. But I can’t have one in our state – it can’t be registered as anything and likely not insured either.

      Of course it can’t fight an American SUV. But your SUV can’t fight a semi, or an inconveniently-placed jersey barrier at 65mph either.

      Small minicars and “quadricycles” (look this term up) should be the default local/regional form of transportation in any urbanized area. Only our paranoia and false sense of entitlement with regard to luxury and safety prevent us from doing what literally 4+ billion people in the world have to do every day.

      1. Basically, while we stroke our neckbeards at how unsafe everything us, Chinese E-bike and moped companies have put hundreds of millions of people around the world on electric wheels in the past 2 to 3 decades with little fanfare, no VC, and no tech blog hype. This is why I am patently unimpressed by the likes of Tesla and all of the American automakers’ attempts at “going green” generating more marketing buzz than deliverable results and widespread impact.

        1. People aged over about 40 in the UK will remember ‘milk floats’ powered by lead acid batteries quietly bringing your dairy goods in the early hours. I don’t know how much maintenance burden there was, but they were extremely common place from the fifties and declined through the eighties, though a handful, even fifties built ones, are apparently still in service. I think the first was used in 1935! Reliability certainly seems to have been good. Since milk was delivered back then in glass and the empties collected, washed and used again, it sounds like the kind of green utopian concepts we now just talk about! I also remember the driver would often jump out before it even came to a stop, guess all those lead batteries, glass and milk had some real momentum.

      2. While these small eclectic runabouts might be fine in the South, here in the North they are simply not going to cut it in the Winter. Lack of power, and more importantly, lack of heating makes these vehicles useless for at least four months of the year.

          1. Well I live and drive in Montreal, Quebec, and it gets cold here regularly to a degree they rarely see in France. It’s not just a matter of driver comfort, windows frost up, the roads ice up, and it is not uncommon to have snowfalls which would cover the wheels of this car. These things are just not practical for Winter driving above the snowline in North America.

          2. These things run in towns in the French Alps. Where windows frost up, the roads ice up, and it is not uncommon to have snowfalls which would cover the wheels of this car. Not all of France is the hot bit.

          3. Some fools might, but based on my observations as a regular Winter driver, and more than a passing familiarity with French commonsense thinking I suspect that these cars get limited use in the Alpine departments in bad weather. It’s just a matter of risk vs physics when you use the road regularly in the Winter. There are days when I use my bicycle for trips of significant lengths during the season, the city keeps several hundred kilometers of the bike path network cleared, however any claim that you can get by with only a bike as transportation in Montreal can only be made by some very dedicated riders who still have to face the fact that there can be stretches of several days when one cannot safely ride. It is the same with these little cars – one simply cannot depend on them as they won’t perform well in deep snow or during long cold-snaps – in other words they are not practical Winter cars.

        1. I’m not sure about useless, but certainly they have reduced functionality. In the cold, the batteries have reduced capacity, and therefore, vehicle range. And while it does have a heater, obviously its electric and the use of it drastically reduces range. And what little heating it does do is intended for clearing the windscreen, not for warming up the cabin. Interestingly, ZENN released a bulletin around 2010 to remind people of this fact. And, they included a pro tip! For cold days, they recommend putting a small 110v electric heater in the cabin of the car a few hours before your planned trip to warm the cabin up!

          Because of these limitations (as well as range and speed), in my mind, the ZENN and other pure-electric cars like it, will always be a ‘second’ car. It may have been possible in urban areas to use it for primary transportation, but in Wisconsin, even in a metro area, it would never have been able to be my primary vehicle.

          1. Truth to be told, it’s a common practice to put a small electric heater in regular cars and run it for 30 minutes to clear the windows and heat the interior. Saves you 10 minutes scratching your windows to shit.

            You need a block heater in the winter anyhow or else you’re just abusing and wearing out the engine and creating unnecessary pollution, so it’s trivial to wire up a hot air blower on the same timer that heats the engine 15-30 minutes before you have to go to work.

          2. I used to have a ’69 VW van, which does not have much more heat that it takes to keep the windshield clear and not enough to really clear it in the first place.I took a piece of aluminum angle and glued in a series of “cement” power resistors. The was mounted on the dashboard. I then hooked it to an extension run into the house, with a timer set for about 90 minutes before I got up. When I left for work, the windshield was warm and the heater just managed to keep it clear. It was not isolated from the line, and not too well insulated, but it worked. I never got into the car without unplugging it first. I doubt I’d do this now, but it seemed safe enough to an immortal 24-year-old. I live in Kokomo IN, we usually have a fair number of days in the 0 to 15 degrees F every year, and sometimes in the negative teens, but not every year. Air cooled VW heat was marginal at best!

          1. Montreal deals with snow, God knows we get enough of it, but this is a city built on and up a mountain, and cleared and salted or not, in the sort of extreme cold we get here, poor traction, lack of cabin heat, and degraded performance of the car mitigate to make these ,oversized golf carts like the ZENN at least, a poor choice. There are electric cars in the city, in fact we now have a fleet of all-electric cabs – but they are full sized.

          2. They seem to. There are charging stations popping up everywhere in the MUC region. Téo Taxi, Montreal’s all-electric taxi service uses them. But these are cars scaled for the conditions you run into here.

        2. I absolutely agree with your comments, being from Montreal myself, people often underestimate the harshness of the winter here. Daily high average in Montreal for February is in the order of -5 to -1 C (23 to 29F) while Chamonix is 4 to 10C (40 to 49F).
          A 10 degree Celsius difference might not seem like much, but take into consideration this is average high and the ice & snow has absolutely no chance to melt in Montreal during the winter (for the most part) while it’s constantly being “renewed” in Chamonix.
          Not exactly the same picture, no one would go to Montreal in the winter for a vacation… unless they were out of their mind.

          Montreal:

          Chamonix:

      1. I did say “Not uncommon” which isn’t quite the same as common :)

        Plenty in France, and you see them from time to time in the UK. The diesel ones have an incredible MPG figure, but are slooooooow.

  2. “Short-range vehicles like this one or many of the current crop of electric UTVs can do without the capacity and weight savings, and reap the benefit of the older technology being significantly cheaper.”

    In any regular use, lead-acid batteries have to be replaced every 1½ – 2 years. They really only have about 500 good cycles in them if you hope to drain them anywhere near half-empty. They tried it back in the day with mail vans in California and found out the average replacement was 14 months. Another case was Sweden and Finland where they tried a lead-acid battery based delivery van for the post office, but found the running costs were higher than regular vans because of the cost of replacement batteries and proper disposal.

    1. Chattanooga, TN has a fleet of free electric shuttle buses that run a couple of loops. One goes from the former railroad station down to a terminal near the aquarium then back up the next street over. The other loop goes over the river and runs around stuff on the other side.

      They started it with shuttles using lead-acid. Those have to get their battery packs swapped halfway through the day. Takes about 10~15 minutes to swap. Their new ones run either NiMH or Lithium-Ion (I asked when I was there last summer, forget which) and can run a full day on a charge. CARTA has been running these electric buses since 1991. http://www.afdc.energy.gov/pdfs/chatt_cs.pdf

      The buses have some type of position tracking system and a recorded voice that announces and displays the name of each stop. One thing that PDF doesn’t mention is they have air suspension which the driver can deflate to drop the whole bus down so the step out is lower. However, with the weight of the vehicles, the suspension requires a lot of air pressure so they don’t rid all that smoothly.

      Bonus nugget is the Jack’s Alley stop is right at the front door of Sticky Fingers, and there’s a lot of other restaurants within 2 or 3 blocks.

      On one ride the bus was full of tourists, chatting about things they wanted to see. I mentioned I’d had some really good ribs at Sticky Fingers the day before. One guy said “RIBS!” others said “Where?” I said it’s the Jack’s Alley stop, coming up next. *Everyone* got off the bus and went into that restaurant. ;) Heck with their plans, they wanted Tennessee BBQ NOW.

    2. I have some experience with the electric UTVs, and in those they’re quite practical.

      It *doesn’t* work with a vehicle that runs many miles daily like a mail van or a bus. But it does with one that does a few miles daily like a small runabout or a UTV. The battery never gets empty so full charge cycles are rare, the awful power-to-weight of lead acid doesn’t matter, and the life issues are offset by lead-acid being cheap to replace.

      It’s a moving target though, as lithium-ion batteries become both better in terms of life and cheaper to buy that lead acid niche becomes ever smaller.

    3. You’re absolutely right. I don’t expect to get more than two years of life out of the batteries. It’s also why I bought the ones with 24-month warranties, should anything happen between now and then. :-)
      I really had to do some soul-searching when getting the lead acid batteries. In the end, I got each for about $100, which ain’t too bad in my book. I also already had the charger, controller, etc. set up for the type and chemistry.
      If I had converted to lithium, the cost would have been staggering for this project. The battery pack alone, by some rough calculations and quick online searches, would have been in the $2000+ range. Then you need to factor in buss bars, some kind of container (smaller form factor with lithium!), charger, charge controller, etc. Suddenly I’m out of “Hey this is neat!” and into something with a much greater commitment and a much tougher ROI.

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