Jonathan Lake was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a few weeks to live. That was in 1995.
He still has more work to do.
The Delaware native is taking his lifelong passion for electric vehicles, and with his business partner Gregory Coles, also an electric car enthusiast, the two are hoping to transform the automotive world.
The men met two years ago through a Delaware electric car club where electric vehicle enthusiasts can talk shop. “People put us together through word of mouth,” Coles said.
They soon realized that they had the same vision for an electric vehicle future.
“I was always fascinated by electric cars,” said 67-year-old Lake.
He built his first electric car at age 12, using a washing machine motor, and catching the attention of Joe Biden Sr., a fellow car enthusiast, neighbor and friend of Lake’s family.
“It wasn’t real pretty, but it worked,” Lake said. “Joe Biden’s father fell in love with it. He thought it was the greatest thing.”
Lake gives credit to his grandmother, who started the Lake family business in 1929. “She liked electric cars because they didn’t scare her horses,” Lake said.
Thus, Auto Archives began in Yorklyn, Delaware. “A two-car garage in the middle of nowhere,” Lake said.
The business passed down to Lake’s parents, and then himself, as he learned everything he could about cars and eventually specialized in high-end body work. The chemicals and contaminants used in his chosen profession, however, took a toll on his slender frame. In 1995, doctors diagnosed Lake with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, finding tumors in his lungs and breast, and gave him only a few weeks to live. “They sent in hospice to wrap things up, yet I’m still here,” Lake said.
He doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
Leaving behind the hands-on part of the business was hard, but he has stayed involved by doing car appraisals and evaluations. “I always worked with my hands. I really miss that,” said Lake, a soft-spoken man who also runs Green.TV, a media company he started in 1995 after his cancer diagnosis and the passing of his mother. The channel features videos that highlight electric vehicles and other sustainable projects.
Just like Lake, Coles’ interest in electric vehicles started when he was young. Growing up in Virginia, he fell in love with racing remote-controlled cars in 2016. “I liked RC cars and I figured they could just be bigger. That’s how it started,” the 49-year-old said.
Just like Lake, Coles is a self-made man.
“I’m not academically trained, classically trained. I just learned it. I’m self-taught, every bit of it,” Coles said.
Joining forces when they did is pure kismet. Their goal is to change the internal-combustion automotive world for a greener future. With Lake’s experience, resources, and tons of connections, Coles said they can make it happen.
Their biggest connection of all spends most of his time in the White House these days, but still gets an occasional visit to his home in North Shores.
On a balmy December afternoon, Coles rolled into Rehoboth Beach pulling a 1970 280 SE Mercedes-Benz on a flatbed trailer. Although the latest luxury cars are commonplace in Rehoboth Beach, and a 50-year-old car may barely get a glance, Coles’ Benz commanded a presence parked next to the Boardwalk as passersby stopped to peer inside the four-door vehicle and ask questions about it.
Coles graciously answered all their questions, chatting up his Mercedes electric conversion. Popping the hood, he showed off the custom battery with its Mercedes logo cover, and moving to the car’s back end, he pointed out the dual charge outlets behind the license plate.
At $25,000 to convert an internal-combustion engine to electric, Coles said his work has mostly involved converting high-end cars for people who have the money.
“That’s when you ask, is the juice worth the speed,” he said. “These are passion projects.”
The 1970 Benz is so old, Coles said, he has to import parts from Turkey. A rear-view camera is a high-tech addition, along with front-seat airbags, Apple Play with hands-free capability, and an engine that, he said, can rival the Tesla. A stick-shift-type apparatus is used to put the car into gear, but some coaching is needed before taking it for a spin.
“I could leave this car out in broad daylight, and no one would know how to take off in it,” Coles said. “Then if you got in, you’d be like, ‘It won’t start.’”
It’s now Lake’s pleasure to drive it around and promote it. He procured a Biden1 license plate, and can’t wait to show it off to his old friend. Lake said he plans on driving the vehicle to give it the most visibility possible while promoting the nascent electric vehicle-conversion industry.
“We will be converting passenger vehicles all the way up to all-electric tow trucks that save over $100K during the average life cycle. And then they can be recycled again with modern upgrades,” Lake said. “We are adding to the new electric vehicle market by creating a support chain of new types of education and jobs from technicians at Del Tech to engineers and all in between, here in Delaware and across the USA.”
Together, Coles and Lake want to transform the automotive world. Armed with economic incentives, Coles recently bought a 600,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in North Carolina at the site of the former 58-acre Stanley furniture plant. The company will be named Auto Archive – an homage to Lake’s family business.
“It’s a tier one economic distressed county, and they offered incentives to bring in a green company,” Coles said. “The town only has 800 people, but we can employ half of those citizens. We’re looking to help the citizens there.”
Coles will serve as president and Lake as chief executive officer for the company that is committed to producing zero carbon emissions. Lake said the plant will be powered with solar, geothermal, fuel cells and wind.
Pivoting from the niche luxury car conversion business, Lake and Coles want to take the nation’s army of existing work vehicles and make them electric. This includes last-mile delivery vans, school buses, tow trucks and food trucks.
“Anything that is a commercial-use vehicle. You get a return on your investment,” Coles said.
“This vehicle that I did, I did for a rite of passage. To prove that it could be done. This is the segue over to the commercial side.”
Coles has already built his first converted tow truck, made sure it works, and is ready to make his business a reality. “Now we’re ready to hit the ground running,” he said.
A 1955 Ford F150 is his next project. “It’s a beautiful truck,” he said. The bed of the truck has a solar energy system to power the vehicle. “It literally charges itself,” he said.
And then he plans to make a special electric vehicle for First Lady Jill Biden’s upcoming birthday in June.
Always looking ahead, once the men conquer the electric conversion market, they want to move into creating hydrogen engines.
“The long game is hydrogen, but the segue is retrofitting, just because there is a huge need for it. Hydrogen is nothing but an electric car with a hydrogen fuel cell instead of batteries. It’s still an electric car,” Coles said.