The wild ‘Mana La’ solar car contrasted by the utilitarian functionality of a cement mixer. Stuart Highway, Northern Territory 1 November 1987…

The John Paul Mitchell sponsored car designed by Jonathon Tennyson is heading for Adelaide, 3005 Km away, sadly the brilliant vehicle DNF’d the race won by GM’s ‘Sunraycer’.

The genesis of this first Darwin to Adelaide ‘World Solar Challenge’ was critics telling adventurer Hans Tholstrup that Australia could not be crossed by a solar powered vehicle.

In 1982, together with Australian F1 driver Larry Perkins and his brother Gary, Tholstrup developed a car in which he became the first person to drive across Australia. The 4,000 Km journey in ‘The Quiet Achiever’ took him 20 days.

The Perkins Engineering- Larry and Gary Perkins built 1982 ‘The Quiet Achiever’ or ‘BP Solar Trek’ car. Rudimentary design which is deceptively clever and a precursor to the much more sophisticated, mega-buck cars which followed (NM)

Criticism of the car sparked what became the first World Solar Challenge five years later. In 1987 23 teams from Europe, the US, Asia and Australia entered the event with over 40 taking part in 2017.

The Danish born Australian’s desire to develop solar energy came after years of being a self-confessed fuel guzzler. ‘I was doing my penance…because I flew around the world, rode in race cars and powerboats, I did everything that used finite fossil fuel’ quipped Tholstrup in a recently ABC interview. He noted that solar panels are half the size they were in 1987 with the cars doing the same speeds.

One of the ‘big buck’ entries won the inaugural challenge, the Paul MacCready designed and built General Motors ‘Sunraycer’ was victorious in 44.90 hours at an average speed of 66.90 km/h.

At the wheel was ever-versatile Australian champion racing driver John Harvey who was also involved in testing the car at the GM Proving Ground in Arizona. Second into Adelaide two days later was the Ford Australia entry and the Ingenieurschule, Biel vehicle third.

The GM Sunraycer on day 3 of the 1987 challenge, 3rd November. Car is on the Stuart Highway 100 Km south of the Devils Marbles. Car took 5.5 days to complete the 3000 Km journey (P Menzel)

In some ways the most radical entry, the John Paul Mitchell Systems car ‘stole the show’, visually at least, albeit the car was out of the race way too soon.

Jonathan Tennyson designed and built the car funded by John Paul Mitchell Systems. With the help of James Amick, the inventor of the ’Windmobile’ Tennyson developed a vertical wing design to exploit the wind to help mobilise the car in addition to its primary source of power- solar energy. By covering the resulting arched wing of the ‘Mana La’ (power of the sun in Hawaiian) in solar panels the idea was to be able to expose the panels to the sun at all times of the day.

The radical machine is 19′ long, 6 1/2′ wide and 6 1/2′ tall. Its built from urethane foam, carbon fibre and vinyl ester resin weighing circa 250 Kg. An onboard computer distributed power to ‘NASA-grade storage batteries’.


The visually arresting arch is covered by 140 solar panels. Sixty-four silver-zinc batteries retained the power collected and fed a pair of 2-horsepower, brushless direct-current motors. Each engine utilised two windings, one for lower speeds and higher torque, and another for higher speeds at lower torque.

Nicknamed ‘the hair dryer’ given its sponsor, the US$250,000 Mana La qualified second starting behind Sunraycer on ‘pole’. By 4 pm on the first day of the event, the car was out of the race. The crew ran too hard through the hills trying to catch the Sunraycer, exhausting their batteries in the process and were never able to harness the wind the car was designed to exploit. Their battery specialist estimated it would take 40 hours in the sun to recharge…what a great mighta been this quite stunning machine is.

In 2010 the car was donated to the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation, paulmitchell.com

Photo Credits…

Getty Images, Australian National Museum, Petersen Museum, Peter Menzel

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