TONY REID, (Decatur) Herald and Review
SULLIVAN, Ill. (AP) — If something is worth inventing, it's worth inventing again.
Armed with that kind of reassurance, Sullivan entrepreneur Larry Yoder has gone ahead and reinvented the horseless carriage "because I had a ball doing it."
And it really is a carriage: He's taken a former Amish buggy and built solar panels into the roof to feed batteries that power an electric motor capable of whipping it along at 14 mph, flat out. The buggy has been lengthened and widened and now, measuring 10 feet long and 6½ feet wide, will hold six passengers in comfort in its green crushed velvet interior.
"No, that's original, that's how the Amish buggies are," explains Yoder as a visitor registers surprise that the seemingly spartan Amish clip-clop around in such comfort. "This is a real Amish buggy."
Except for that solar-fed 1 horsepower motor replacing the one live horse power critter that was intended to be pulling things up front, of course. Yoder has also added cruise control and a GPS system just in case his natural wanderlust takes him too far from home (the buggy has a range of up to 50 miles.)
And then we're off on a test spin, which is a remarkably pleasurable experience on a warm, sunny day that's yielding plenty of juice for the rechargeable batteries. With no equine rear quarters obstructing the view up front and the front window popped out for natural air conditioning, the vista is wide and the breeze is sweet as Yoder deftly steers with a kind of tiller system he dreamed up to replace the reins.
"Everybody is like, 'Whoa,' when they see this," says Yoder's wife, Pat. "And, oh yeah, everybody wants a ride. Everybody."
Which includes the ever-curious Amish. The Yoders like to spend part of the winter in Florida, and they live in an area close by Amish families who have joined them to chase the shouting wind along in fun horseless carriage excursions. Pat Yoder even entertains ideas that her husband's invention could be the perfect retirement vehicle for older Amish who don't have the physical resources to corral live horses anymore for their transport needs.
"I guess it's all up to the Amish bishops, if they would allow it or not," says Pat Yoder. "But a solar-powered buggy could be a nice alternative for them."
Her husband isn't holding his breath on that one but has already had serious interest from non-Amish fellow entrepreneurs who are eying a stretched horseless carriage as a unique wedding vehicle. Yoder is also in demand to make guest appearances in parades and has driven it as far as Arthur, seven miles away from his home base near Sullivan, where he is president of the family firm Yoder Farm Drainage.
The drainage business sprang from running a family farm, and Yoder says his self-taught inventive streak is a natural byproduct of having to do your own repairs and making things work in the agricultural life. "Everything you do on the farm is pretty much trial and error," he explains. "And if something doesn't work, you try something else and you work on it until it works."
His lively mind also likes to wander the inventive far frontiers of the art of the possible, however, which explains his forays into mechanical flights of fancy like the horseless buggy.
There were several prototypes before the big one, and these early models look very different: Think of a two-seater lawn swing with big wagon wheels at each end. They use earlier versions of the solar-charged battery-motor system and a lever steering arrangement (from a zero turn mower) lets them revolve on a dime. The wheels are independently powered, and Yoder can make the wagons spin in place at speeds that will tempt a passenger's eaten breakfast to reverse rapidly via their throat.
"You know what's surprising?" he asks as he gyrates one of the two-wheelers like a centrifuge. "Ladies get on here, girls, and they want a thrill, and they always want to go with the speed wide open."
Yoder has ambitious dreams of taking his multi-passenger buggy for a spin across country and, with the pace of solar panel technology heating up and getting steadily better, a buggy drive to Florida is definitely on his to-do list. In the meantime, the prolific inventor is working on getting some kind of license plate for his horseless carriage, although categorizing it has proved a tough one for local law enforcement.
"I've talked to the police about it, and they look at it and say, 'Well, it's sort of a buggy, but you don't have a horse,' " recalls Yoder. "I just tell them 'Oh, my horse? It ran away.' "
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.