Ford Electric Cars: Past, Present and Future

JAN 22 2019 BY BRADLEY BERMAN 43

Ford has been developing electric cars for more than a century. Will it finally deliver a winning EV?

Ford’s intent to become a leader in electric cars goes back to the company’s earliest days. In those 100-plus years, Ford produced numerous plug-in concepts, a few production models, and a lot of gas-electric hybrids. But the company’s EV efforts are mostly left undone.

Today the company is promising 16 new, pure electric cars in the next three years. As we await their arrival, let’s look for clues about the future for Ford’s electric cars by looking at its past.


PAST

As early as 1903, Henry Ford was aware that his friend Thomas Edison was experimenting with battery technology for vehicles. But it wasn’t until 1914 that Ford began openly working on a low-cost electric car. According to news accounts, the goal was to sell the so-called Edison-Ford for as low as $500, only slightly more than a Model T in the day.

“Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile,” Mr. Ford told The New York Times in January 1914. “The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging.”

Fred Allison, an electrical engineer, with a Ford experimental electric car. Circa 1914.

The batteries under the seat on the first couple of electric prototypes were capable of somewhere between 50 and 100 miles on a single charge. Ford was also rumored to be establishing a Detroit-based facility to produce the first Ford EV for introduction in 1915.

During this era, electric cars were particularly appealing to women. Unlike gas cars that started with a hand-crank, battery-powered automobiles didn’t take a lot of muscle to operate. EVs were reliable, and they didn’t produce foul-smelling emissions. Henry Ford’s wife Clara, who drove an 80-mile 1914 Detroit Electric, was an early EV advocate.

By May 1914, Mr. Ford said, “It’s coming.” And he was proclaiming an EV revolution in the works. “The electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future.”

Historians aren’t certain why Ford never delivered on his promise for the Edison-Ford car. Some say that he was pulled away on other projects. But others believe that the electric self-starter was the culprit. When internal-combustion cars started replacing hand-cranks with electric-starter devices, EVs were robbed of a key selling point: ease of use. So, despite Clara’s encouragement and an investment of about $1.5 million in his electric-car project, Ford shelved his plans for a new, affordable electric vehicle.

A Long Hibernation

More than four decades passed before Ford Motor resurrected its electric-car efforts. Battery research was again underway in the late 1950s. Then, the American environmental movement gained momentum after the 1963 publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring. There was a flurry of federal legislation promoting cleaner air. Ford reportedly responded in 1966 by working on a car about the size of a Ford Falcon that could go 82 miles on a single charge.

The Wall Street Journal reported in October 1966 that Ford Motor Co. made a “major breakthrough in battery research.” The company claimed that its new batteries – using sodium-sulfur chemistry instead of lead acid – could store 15 times more energy than before. In a presentation on Oct. 3, Ford officials said the new battery technology would address the problem of limited range while offering better acceleration than gas cars.

The Ford Comuta was half the length of a common sedan.

Ford said that road testing of a new production electric car would begin in 1968. Small motors might be mounted in the wheels. But instead of introducing an EV in a popular five-passenger format like the Falcon, Ford in June 1967 unveiled its experimental all-electric Comuta minicar.

Built in England, the Ford Comuta used four 12-volt batteries to provide about 40 miles of range and a top speed of about 35 miles per hour. At the unveiling, the company said that practical electric cars would become “feasible within the next 10 years.” But the decade came and went without Ford showing progress with EVs. In 1976, Thomas J. Feaheny, vice-president for powertrain research at Ford, said, “I’m pessimistic that we’ll see many electric cars in the near term.”

Fast Forward Another 20 Years

After California reaffirmed its California zero-emissions mandates in 1996, Ford needed to produce and sell at least several thousand electric cars by 2003. The company responded with two electric vehicles: the Think City microcar and the Ford Ranger EV pickup.

In 1999, Ford Motor Co. plunked down $23 million to buy Think Global  – a Norway-based company that had been developing a funky, lightweight, plastic-bodied EV since 1991. After investing another $100 million in battery development, Ford in Nov. 1999 went into production of the Think City.

Think City in 2008, after Ford its interest

The two-seater offered about 53 miles of range and a top speed of 55 miles per hour. Ford also sold the Think Neighbor, a golf-cart-like all-electric utility vehicle with a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The City was offered in a 34-month lease for $199 a month. Ford had hoped to lease about 5,000 Think City cars but only managed to find about 1,000 customers.

“We don’t believe that this is the future of environmental transport for the mass market,” said Tim Holmes, a Ford spokesperson. By August 2002, Ford Motor Co. gave up, putting its Think division up for sale.

An All-Electric Ford Pickup

The more viable late-1990s Ford electric vehicle was the all-electric Ranger EV, a compact pickup produced with engineering support from Think. The Ranger EV was built from 1998 to 2002 – the era of General Motors’s EV1.

Ford Ranger EV

Ford’s electric pickup was converted from a four-cylinder Ford Ranger XL 4X2 Regular Cab. They were equipped with AM/FM radios, bench or bucket seats, and seating for two or three passengers. The nominal sticker price was set at $52,720, but Ford supported an affordable three-year lease program that put nearly all the vehicles into government fleets.

The Ranger EV used lead-acid batteries in the first year of production before switching to nickel metal hydride. The 26 kilowatt-hour nickel-based battery packs provided about 80 miles of range. The electric pickup faced a number of quality problems including diminished range after about 25,000 miles of use.

Soon after California weakened its ZEV mandates in 2003, Ford terminated the Ranger EV leases. Only 1,500 Ranger EV trucks were made over those four years. Most of them were taken back by Ford and subsequently destroyed.


PRESENT

The unexpected success of the Toyota Prius in the 2000s ushered in what might be described as the hybrid decade. That period was defined by automakers once again questioning if batteries were affordable and robust enough for pure electric cars. Ford shifted its efforts to hybrids, an approach that continues with its current lineup.

2019 Ford Fusion Energi

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Ford was well positioned to push for EVs – a technology favored by the new Obama Administration. The company unveiled its Focus Electric at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Using the Focus platform was a logical choice. Auto critics consistently pointed to the Focus as one of the most attractive small cars on the road. The EV variant, which went into production by 2011, used a 23 kilowatt-hour battery pack officially rated to provide 76 miles of range.

When it was introduced, the Focus Electric was the only pure EV that looked and drove like a so-called normal car. That was a welcome relief from geeky EV designs like the first-generation Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Also, the Focus was fun to drive. The 134-horsepower motor provided decent zip. The liquid-cooled battery management system ensured consistent year-round range and battery life.

The big drawback with the Ford Focus Electric was lack of cargo space. As a gas car converted to run on electricity, the main battery pack was packaged under the liftgate reducing hatch cargo space by 39 percent, to just 14.5 cubic feet.

Ford Focus Electric

The Focus Electric’s initial starting price was $39,995 before incentives. To keep sales flowing, Ford in 2013 Ford dropped the price by $4,000 and offered a $6,000 dealership incentive, reducing the net price to $29,200. By the following year, that became the Focus Electric’s standard price.

Months before the Focus Electric went on sale, Ford’s chief executive Alan Mulally was downplaying the viability of EVs. “The infrastructure is just not there yet,” Mulally told Newsweek, from the sidelines of the 2012 Detroit Auto Show. “These are very expensive vehicles because the batteries and electronics are very expensive.”

Even as Ford increased the size of the battery in 2017 to 33.5 kilowatt-hours – expanding its range to 115 miles – the Focus Electric was an also-ran. All told, Ford sold about 9,300 units before the company killed the Focus Electric (and most of its cars) in April 2018.

Experiments and Plug-in Hybrids

There were other short-lived Ford EVs. In 2010, Ford retrofitted a few hundred Transit Connect delivery vehicles to run purely on electricity. The company ran a pilot program to create a plug-in hybrid version of the Escape Plug-in Hybrid. And in 2011, it unveiled the Ford Evos, a plug-in hybrid GT concept with gull-wing doors.

The company’s most successful production plug-ins were the Ford C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi (the current sole surviving model).

When the C-Max arrived in 2012, it looked like a winner. Only available as a hybrid and plug-in hybrid, the small and tall wagon-like compact provided 20 miles of all-electric range and a 188-hp power plant. The time seemed right for Americans to embrace the type of small utility car that Europeans have long embraced. But the experiment never quite worked. Consumers were confused about the in-between nature of the C-Max’s dimensions and the hard-to-describe powertrain. Besides, the Volt offered a lot more all-electric range.

2013 Ford C-Max Energi

In 2013, complaints and lawsuits emerged about the C-Max Hybrid not achieving its advertised 47-mpg EPA rating. Ford downgraded its fuel-economy rating of the hybrid to 40 on the highway – lowering it a second time in 2014.

The C-Max had a couple of years of decent sales. But the numbers were always well behind the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. By November 2017, Ford pulled the plug on the C-Max.

Consumers were more open to the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid as a mid-size sedan with a traditional trunk. It ranked as the sixth most popular plug-in hybrid in 2018 – behind the Prius Prime, Honda Clarity PHEV, Chevy Volt, and BMW 530e.  With Ford eliminating its cars (in favor of SUVs and trucks), the Fusion is now a moribund model.


FUTURE

To get its EV program back on track, Ford announced in Dec. 2015 that it would invest $4.5 billion in “electrified” solutions (including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, pure EVs, self-driving cars, and all kinds of mobility services). The company promised that 40 percent of its nameplates would have electrified options by 2020.

By 2016, news emerged that Ford would create an affordable 200-mile EV, possible called the Model E, to compete with the Tesla Model 3. Sources said it would go into production in spring 2019.

But the biggest announcement about Ford’s future EV plans came in Dec. 2017. The company said it would create a new division dubbed Team Edison to design and produce electric and autonomous vehicles in a 45,000-square-foot former Ford factory in downtown Detroit.

Ford’s 300-mile SUV

On Sept. 7, 2018, Ford issued a teaser image for the first vehicle to be produced in the company’s new EV era. It showed the profile of Mustang-inspired 300-mile electric SUV, which is expected in 2020.

“We are being tasked to set the future trajectory of the company,” wrote Darren Palmer, Ford’s product development director for electric vehicles.

Palmer said that he and his team were “energized” by the company making an $11 billion investment to produce 16 fully electric vehicles by 2022. The Chinese market will figure prominently. The list of plug-in models includes versions of the Ford Escape crossover SUV, Lincoln MKC, and Transit Connect.

Ford continues to trickle out news about future electric vehicles. Last week, Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, confirmed plans for an all-electric version of the F-Series pickup – the best-selling vehicle in the US for more than four decades. No date was given for when a new Ford electric pickup would be introduced.

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43 Comments on "Ford Electric Cars: Past, Present and Future"

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Great pix. Sort of a Kodak moment. 🙂

I heard $52,000 for the ICE Aviator and $69,000 for the PHEV model – of course – I’d be interested in purchasing a PHEV with as few frills and the simplest and smallest ICE as possible. But they seem to be only offering the model in the priciest category.

I like my Bolt EV BEV LT (plain-jane version) since everything about the car is to keep the car a long range electric, yet keep the MSRP reasonable. Ford seems to be going in the opposite direction.

On the face of it, $17,000 extra seems just too much for a PHEV adder. Especially if it only has a measly 20 miles or something like that.

In addition to the 300mi EV, Ford will start offering the 2020 Explorer as a plug in hybrid this summer and an all electric F150.

https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2019/01/17/how-ford-plans-to-get-buyers-to-pay-more-for-hybrid-and-electric-pickups.html

Plug in Transit Connect you say.
Please tell us more.
Why isn’t Ford talking about an efficient, urban delivery/cargo van in the works?
That’s what I’m looking for.

You said it yourself: Transit Connect.

They sold a Transit Connect EV (ford hired an aftermarket firm to do the conversion)… When they didn’t sell FORD discontinued the EV model and gave them away at a sacrifice price. The EV wasn’t particularly well ‘integrated’ into the truck (The only way you knew how many miles were in the Guess-o-meter was to unplug the 3.3 kw charger), and you could only go 50 miles or so per charge. But those who bought the thing with the discount seemed satisfied.

Bill, I had the Azure Dynamics version for avery brief time. I loved it as an around town work van. Alas, it didn’t end well. It died prematurely, and here in the Northwest Outback I could not get it running again. Very, very sad indeed.

Sorry about the Azure experience – but at the end I think, with the tax credit – they were going for around $10,000 so a friend picked one up. That’s how I found out about the kludginess of it. Sorry yours died early.

Rather obvious to me that the reason Henry Ford didn’t make the Standard “model T” electric is that someone blew up the battery factory. Sounds like a Big Oil problem to me since gasoline wasn’t exactly value priced in those days and there was much money at stake. Electricity wasn’t that cheap either, but the end result would have been that in most places refueling would have been cheaper with Electricity, same as today.

I’m sure Big Oil – or unscrupulous owners of same made SURE Mr. Ford understood the ‘Realities’.

Of course, Decades Later GM would systematically buy up the USA’s superb (for the time) almost totally electric Public Transportation system through Front Companies and increase fares, decrease stops, and eventually force ALL of them out of business – so that municipalities would have no choice but purchase GM Diesel Smelly Buses.

I’m sure Big Oil helped out in that endeavor wherever they could, also, as it meant plenty of sales of #2 Fuel Oil.

Yeah, that was a damn shame – it happened in cities and small towns all over the US. Some of them today, at least those that have the resources, are planning electric trolley or bus or other light-rail services where they once existed. There are quite a few towns and cities that would benefit from such services – they help the elderly in a number of ways, they help the working classes keep living expenses down, and they help keep congestion mitigated.

From what I understand, Mr Ford said the reason for not bringing it to market was the batteries were not sufficient. The Detroit Electric had a top speed of 20 mph. At 25 mph, the batteries would overheat. Also, they achieved the 50 – 100 mile range at 20 mph.

I believe the Model T had a top speed of ~45 and cruising speed of ~30 mph.

This is the first I’ve heard of this. Do you have any links to the story?

Like many “Big Oil” conspiracy theories, they are just that – a conspiracy theory.

https://www.hemmings.com/blog/2010/05/25/henry-ford-and-the-electric-car/

It sounds like something far more boring happened, the electric designs (more specifically the battery) just weren’t competitive enough. That same with pretty much all the other EV trials since then, until recently.

Conspiracy huh?
Tell that to the fire dept who had to respond. Ford said the batteries were not perfect – although Edison’s battery was repairable and could be continually refurbished at relatively low cost.

An explosion, of whatever the cause, I’m sure helped cement Ford’s Cancellation.

I don’t have a link – I just remember reading the story decades ago. Ford from his statements surely seemed like this would be the next technology advance so the story had the ring of truth to me at the time. Of course it could have been an innocent explosion what with all the chemicals used.

But I’m sure Standard Oil of NJ didn’t cry too much.

Electricity just wasn’t a well-distributed fuel during the early years of the 20th century. The Ford Model T first came out in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1925 that even 50% of American households had electricity. The Model T was made to run on the fuels that were widely available at that time: ethanol (made from corn on farms), gasoline (available in the cities), kerosene, or combinations of these fuels

I have a Focus Electric and it’s been a fantastic car. Bought it used off lease when the EV market bottomed out in 2016 and the car has actually appreciated in value since then! In spite of the limitations of relatively short range and limited cargo space, it still works for >95% of my trips. I’m hoping Ford has something compelling coming up in the next few years. The 300 mile “Mach 1” EV sounds like it will be unaffordable, even if it’s fast and flashy. I’d like an Escape EV with 200 miles of range.

Same here – I love my much maligned Ford Focus E. The cargo thing is sited as main drawback, I always found that curious. There is an insert behind the battery pack that most owners remove which give you several more cu feet of secured space. When you fold the seats down there is tons of room I am a drummer and it is my primary drum hauler to gigs – plenty of room!

I leased a 2018 for a low price. Even better, the buy-back price is $8500, so it makes a good second car to the Model 3. The total cost of the lease is $7,488 (not counting the $2500 CA rebate I used for the down). In addition to the lease buy back at $8500, there is the $500 purchase fee. In the end, I effectively purchased the car for $16,488. That’s a nice deal on a new EV that has an MSRP of $31,735.

I really like the interior of the Focus Electric. It’s a nice upgraded feel with very little hard plastics. The CarPlay and Android Auto are something I really miss in our Tesla.

I bought my FFE brand new. I had so few payments left on it when I got my Model 3 I decided to keep it as a spare car and as a “winter beater” to keep the salt off my Model 3. And here I though I was the only one with a Model 3 and FFE.

Still waiting for those 16 EV models

Yeah , I’m rather underwhelmed with the offerings of what they used to call the ‘Big 3′ (GM, FORD, FCA).

Most appear to be released by the firms’ “”Chinese Partners””, where the American nameplate has (by law) only a minority interest.

Just as an example of the Deception/Deflection that GM is doing as a for instance, Chevy released for 2019 a turbo 4 cylinder engine for the Silverado to get good EPA marks, which is at a leisurely 48 mph.

Car and driver did a more realistic test at 75 mph and found the 4 cylinder had the same mileage as the LARGEST V-8 AVAILABLE, and the small-block v-8 had a 28% improvement over the 4 cylinder model.

Reason? Fuel economy of the ‘4’ goes out the window when the turbo is engaged. I’d also question the longevity of something taxed so greatly all the time.

So when GM makes an announcement of 20 evs in the next 4 years, etc, I rather yawn since I’m convinced the reality will not be as exciting as the press release.

Ford just can’t seem to gain momentum with their ‘electrification’ plans, which may have something to do with the CEO revolving door. It seems each new CEO brings a different plan that calls for killing off the plan of the previous CEO. So many starts and stops and so many plans without a long range plan that Ford can actually commit to. Which is why everything ‘electrified’ Ford sells today is being cancelled. While at the same time starting over with new entry market PHEV technology with EV technology not available until 2021. Even the teaser of a SUV EV is based on a 2014 Mustang CGI, but no actual teaser of the new EV product. No concept, no battery manufacturing plant, no EV platform, but still ‘talking’ about having a new ev since 2016……3 years ago, which is not scheduled to exist until 2021….5 years from initial announcement is not encouraging. Which is why I think Ford really has put their EV plans on hold until they work out a deal with VW to build it for them. Ford has already committed to building trucks and vans for VW, so VW should be doing the same with EVs. VW… Read more »
Ford seems to be constantly having money problems. And like many they don’t seem to have their act together. Rather like GM discontinuing perfectly fine EV models years before they have something else. Or moving the Cadillac Headquarters Detroit to NYC to Detroit. How much money did that waste? Or coming up with ‘Deceptive’ ICE models like the Silverado 4 cylinder turbo, just to get an EPA number, when the thing in practice gets lousy gas mileage and its ultimate reliability is suspect. 28% worse than the small block v-8 it replaced, when Car and Driver tested it at a realistic 75 mph, as opposed to the unrealistic 48 mph EPA test. Some of GM stuff, like FORD’s , is crap. That 5 cylinder Colorado engine seems like EVERYONE had issues with it, and Ford’s EcoBoost crap has some kind of intercooler defect that Ford won’t address. That’s one reason why I like the simplicity of my BOLT ev – and most of the subsystems in the car are LG who are known for making well-tested products. None of these big companies seems to value Satisfaction after the Sale. I guess we just lucked out with the BOLT ev. Of… Read more »

The photo of a Think City EV is from a Gen 5 vehicle produced in 2008 and on, coming to the US in 2011. While Ford did that body design, they did not produce it, Think Global produced it with updated electronics and battery though it still shares a lot of Frod parts. The Gen 4 was produced by Ford about a decade earlier but looks a bit different, the Wikipedia page for “Ford Th!nk” has a photo.

There are almost 400 Gen 5 Thinks in the US, and nearly 3000 total, mostly in Norway. The Gen 4 Thinks went back to Norway and were still common in the used car market until about last year. http://www.finn.no is only showing the Gen 5 Thinks today.

They had better make their Model E. They ruined SEX for that trademark!

I have owned a hybrid Escape and now a Cmax Energi. Where are Fords EVs? Lotsa promises, 2020…. No announcement or renderings or EV concepts at the Detroit Auto show. In the meantime, Kia has compelling EVs, I will be test driving the Niro EV in February. I will likely buy one, rather than wait wait on Ford.

An interesting trollop through the history of Ford. A checkered past certainly and nothing to brag about in regards to an ev solution in the past, the present, and in all likelihood the future.

The 2020 Explorer they showed will have only Hybrid option and no Plugin option. This shows that Ford is only delaying their electric plans. A company that is very proud of killing EVs with its Model-T. Although they are not in limelight like GM, they played all the scenes from behind like taking over Think City and killing them.
This year they may terminate Fusion Plugin and there is no EV for the next 3 years.

PHEV version is for the Lincoln Aviator only, which btw the configurator went live on 01/22:

https://shop.lincoln.com/build/aviator/#/select/

Enjoyed the article. Thanks!

In the old black-and-white video above, the featured EV has hub motors! There used to be so much talk about those.

As a original 2000 leasee and present owner of the same green Ranger EV, I must divulge my personal experience. My new NiMH Ranger had a good 65 mile range and the typical quick EV jump off the line. Over the years the range did degrade, but closing in on 70k miles I am closer to 40 miles or less depending on the load (it’s rated for 1/2 ton) and speed. Most Rangers that I was aware of were fleet vehicles such as the SF Presidio, LBL DOE, etc. They all came with free EVSE Avcon connectors with a giant claw. In SF, Some Costco’s and BART stations had free Avcons for customer use. Life was good. Legend had it that CEO Bill Ford has a white one and loved it. So coming up on 19 years, I replaced a small fluid pump and added an external transaxle aerospace lubricant pump with the help of our Yahoo Ranger-EV group purchase. While dwindling, the group exists today, and a handful of dedicated owners are doing everything they can to keep these amazing vehicles on the road. I still show mine off at Earth Day, Plug-In events and an occasional St. Patrick’s… Read more »

That is very cool! Congratulations on getting such good use and longevity out of an early EV.

That is really really cool! All of the 90s California EVs looked like such good cars. Instead of trying to be over-the-top electric, I like how they were pretty much normal cars that happened to be electric. It’s so cool knowing that they’re still out there and that there are people keeping them alive! What I’d do for an original Rav4 EV…

Around the same time Henry Ford was making electric vehicles, so was Thomas Edison. He realized that the limiting factor was the battery, so he invented the alkaline battery! Unfortunately, the Model T put his electric car plans out of business.

Google “Edison’s Alkaline Battery” for details.

I saw a Think car last year and was going “What the heck is this? Did Ford really make a tiny plastic electric car?” The company was still alive after Ford sold its shares, and was making cars until 2011.

The Ranger EV would be a BIG HIT if they started making them again.

I had the Focus EV on a 3 year lease. The battery never lost even 1% . The engineer who helped create them said it was a lifetime battery. Of course they figured a 10 to 20 year car life. Not bad.

Ford has a huge problem with their electric vehicles. I call it: “Blue Ring of Death”.
Ford energi is Totally disabled with vehichle thinking it’s still plugged in. Even after entering information via instrument panel that car is not in fact plugged in, vehichle will not move and charge port “blue” LED’s dance around in a circle thinking car is charging.
Ford has not been able to fix this intermittent, disabling fault after 3 service visits and over 50 total days in dealer’s service bay.
Heads up to potential future Ford electric vehicle purchasers!
You have been warned.
Btw, I owned Volt before this, with never a problem!

Yeah, Bob Lutz micromanaged the execution of his GEN 1 Volt ‘Baby’. Totally new model unlike any GM product ever (only the prius was similar – but then Lutz was savvy enough to use Toyota’s subsidiary for the ‘guts’), and also used a reliable old-time engine (that also initially solved an OPEL labor dispute) but with almost no troubles – that’s why they make excellent high-value used cars.

There’s always plenty of used Gen 1 volts around, should u want to cut your losses and drive something RELIABLE.

Ford Fusion Energi has “Blue Ring of Death” problems. Vehichle thinks it’s still charging making car totally disabled.
Engineers need to fix this problem, which they have so far not been able to before they install same electric charging and electronic minitoring syatems in tens of thousands F-150’s.
Fix it now and keep your EV reputation in tack…please!!

I have absolute faith in Ford! ….cough …cough… wheeze… fell over…