Racing the Big Green Solar Car

Teams from Dartmouth and MIT were the only U.S. participants in the 4th Annual Tour del Sol in Switzerland.

The December 1988 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine detailed the results of the 4th Annual Tour del Sol in Switzerland in June 2018, outlining the different approaches of Dartmouth’s Thayer students in developing and building their sleek solar car and that of a team from MIT. 

The Big Green’s Solar Racing Machine, a one-man, solar-powered, three-wheel vehicle, was capable of speeds exceeding 50 mph. The photo above was taken on May 23, 1988 and features students and children getting a closer look at the car, displayed (and evidently still being tweaked) on the campus green. The car included $21,000 worth of high-tech batteries, fed by electricity-producing cell panels. There was a public trial run in Loudon, New Hampshire the following day between the Dartmouth and MIT teams.

The Fall 2014 of Dartmouth Engineer included responses shared by Thayer alumni in response to the question, “What Was Your Greatest Experience at Thayer?" Eric Overton ’87 Th’89 wrote the following:

“The one that stood out most was the original solar car project. Looking back after more than a quarter century of a professional engineering career that’s had me in the thick of several startup companies (one of which went public, one of which was acquired, two of which imploded spectacularly, and one of which I’m still working at), I’m struck by how many similarities there were between that original adventure, where Dartmouth and Thayer School went to the races for the first time, and a few young companies I could name. They all started with a great idea, high hopes, enthusiasm, a blank sheet of paper, a staggering amount of naivety, and an overall management structure completely incapable of running the effort coherently. That’s what startups are all about, and in a microcosmic sense, Thayer’s first effort ever to get to the Tour de Sol was no different. In the end, the car itself was disqualified due to mechanical failure quite early in the race. With two and a half decades of being a practicing engineer, I can clearly spot the two critical flaws in the design of that drive system, into which I’d poured my heart and soul. And I can say with confidence: If you gave me about a month today, I could put the whole thing back on the road in perfect order, never to have another hiccup.

All things considered, it probably matters a whole lot less whether the 1988 Solarmobile won the Tour de Sol as where the people who built it ended up later. And herein lies the virtue of being able to say with a clear conscience that, ultimately, it wasn’t exactly a startup venture to make investors money as much as it was an educational proving ground for the people involved. In that the Solarmobile succeeded far beyond anybody’s wildest hopes.”