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Alternating Currents: An ode to the electric beater

My automotive experience has been, since the moment I turned 16 years of age, a revolving door of inexpensive knockaround machines that served their purpose in the moment; a 400,000 mile Pontiac Grand Prix, a Crown Victoria with a rusty frame, a Ford Aspire missing fourth gear, back seats, and a back window. Even my history with vintage sports cars has been mottled by cars most wouldn’t see fit to hit the road. There was the Triumph TR-7 that I think was possessed, an MG Midget with crash damage, and my current love, a beat up Porsche 912E that has seen far better days. 

With this history in mind, it should come as a surprise to nobody that I’ve been looking for a bottom-of-the-barrel electric beater for the last year or so. The criteria were simple, it needed to be under five grand, it needed to have at least enough range remaining to complete a day of commuting to the office, and it needed to be at least roughly shaped like a car. Last week I found it, my rough among the diamond. 

About 250 miles from my house in Reno, Nevada, a first-year Nissan Leaf popped up on Facebook Marketplace. I don’t even have a Facebook account, but someone thankfully shared it on Twitter (thanks @ferio_252). The price had just been lowered from $4,500 to a mere $2,000 in a desperation move to get it gone as quickly as possible. A few text messages later and I’d settled a deposit and made plans to pick it up the following morning. 24 hours later, it was mine! 

Brad’s new Leaf. Photo credit: Bradley Brownell

Two grand is the sweet spot for a beater. It’s just cheap enough that you don’t really have to care about it, but it’s just expensive enough that you hope it lasts a while. With a full life of two grand beaters behind me, I can definitively say that this is the nicest car I’ve ever purchased for twenty Benjamin Franklins. Aside from some sun fading from the notoriously bright central valley California ball of fire in the sky, and a small dent on the driver’s side where it looks like someone backed into a pole, the car looks practically brand-new. So why was it so cheap?

As you might know, those early pre-2014 battery packs found in the Leaf were not great. Because batteries were so expensive back in 2010, Nissan developed a small 24 kWh pack, and saved further money by not giving it a thermal management system. With no way to cool the packs, aside from ambient air, they degraded rapidly in warm climates like central California, Texas, and Arizona. Giving your early Leaf a CHAdeMO fast charge, or driving it hard in temps above 85 degrees overheated the battery and reduced its long-term capacity. 

Where in 2011 when this thing was sold new, it had around 75 miles of range, the original battery is now down to about 48 miles on a go. That may not seem like a lot, but where I live nothing is more than 20 miles away anyway. I can get from where I live to anywhere in the city and back on a single charge, and with such a short range it charges up overnight on a standard 110v plug. If I need to leave town, it means going at least 100 miles to the next major city, so we would take our gas-powered station wagon for such a trip. It’s kind of the best of both worlds with a two-car solution like this. 

Photo credit: Bradley Brownell

Unfortunately, after driving the Leaf around for the last week, I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. This isn’t supposed to happen when you buy a beater. Buying a beater is supposed to be more like a business transaction. You will treat it with just enough care to make it last a little bit longer, within reason, of course. And the beater is supposed to know its place in the world is to serve as loyal transportation as long as it can before it gets moved on to that big metal scrapyard in the sky.

With just 57,000 miles on the odometer this Leaf is barely broken in. Its suspension and steering components are perfectly operational and have tens of thousands of miles to go before anything major goes wrong. Aside from a few minor cosmetic issues and a barely passable battery range, this is a great Leaf. For the first time in my beater-owning life, I’m forcing myself to actually fix the little things that go wrong. This is a nice enough car that when the tires wear out, I’ll want to buy new ones instead of sending it to the scrapper or selling it for parts. When the battery finally does bow out, I’ll want to source a replacement. This beater might be a keeper. 

I don’t really have any grand plans for this Leaf, but I’ll probably buff out the headlights and the plastic cover for the solar panel, get the dent repaired, repaint the spoiler, those kinds of things. Once it’s all fixed up, I won’t be able to call it a beater anymore. I don’t know what it will be at that point. More importantly, without owning a beater, I don’t know if I’ll even know who I am anymore.


Written by Bradley Brownell
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