Cars that left their mark on electric vehicle history
Electric mobility is the hottest topic in the automotive industry right now, but the idea of a battery- powered car has been around for as long as the car itself.
At the turn of the 20th century, electric cars were commonly used as private vehicles and taxi cabs in major cities around the world. They were generally easier to start and operate than comparable gasoline- or steampowered models, a trait which earned them a reputation as “women’s cars.” But ease of use wasn’t enough to keep them relevant.
Early EVs were notoriously impractical. It wasn’t uncommon for prewar battery-powered cars to register a top speed in the vicinity of 30 km/ h while only providing about 50 km of range. To make matters worse, users complained they spent more time charging than driving. These primitive EVs quickly l ost ground to gasolinepowered models during the 1910s and the 1920s, especially affordable ones such as Ford’s Model T, and development largely stopped until the 1960s.
From an early Porsche design to the newest Nissan Leaf, here are some of the cars that have left their mark on the history of the EV.
LOHNER- PORSCHE ( 1900)
In 1898, Austrian coachbuilder Ludwig Lohner observed the air “was being mercilessly ruined by the petrol engines that now occur in such large numbers.” He decided to build an electric car, and he enlisted a young Ferdinand Porsche to help design it.
The Lohner- Porsche suffered from lacklustre performance; it could drive for about 50 km when travelling at a steady 35 km/h. The hybrid variant offered more speed and more range, but it never sold well because it was considerably more expensive than normal gasoline-powered models.
HENNEY KILOWATT ( 1959)
National Union Electric Co. teamed up with Henney Motor Co. to relaunch the electric car in the late 1950s. The two partners quickly realized designing a car from the ground up was too costly, so they used the Renault Dauphine as a donor vehicle. It was cheap, it wasn’t as tiny as the Fiat 600, and was readily available in North America.
Early versions of the Kilowatt used a 36- volt electric system that provided about 65 km of range and a top speed of 65 km/ h. These stats limited the car’s use to the city. In 1960 an upgraded 72- volt system boosted both range and top speed to 97 km. It was too little, too late, and Henney failed to find audience for the car.
CHEVROLET ELECTROVAIR ( 1964)
In 1964, GM stuffed an electric powertrain into a four- door Corvair. The car moved under its own power, but test drivers complained of shortcomings that made it unviable for mass production. Notably, engineers had to weld the rear doors shut to increase structural rigidity.
GM followed up with a second prototype, the Electrovair II, in 1966. The ’ Vair’s flat-six was replaced by an AC induction motor which drew electricity from a 532-volt silver-zinc battery pack.
Chevrolet’s records note range was the Electrovair II’s biggest downside. It could only drive for 130 km on a single charge, and engineers noticed the battery pack wore out after roughly 100 charging cycles. The Electrovair II was never seriously considered for mass production.
LUNAR ROVING VEHICLE ( 1971)
The Lunar Roving Vehicle ( LRV) looks like it’s based on a VW Beetle chassis, but there’s no flat-four out back. It’s a purpose- designed car powered by in-wheel electric motors not unlike the ones Porsche used in 1900.
The LRV helped astronauts on Apollo missions 15 to 17 explore the Moon and collect samples. Three of the four LRVs built are still on the Moon, unless crafty aliens took them home to start a one- make racing series. The program was cancelled before the fourth LRV made its trip to space.
BMW 1602 ELECTRIC ( 1972)
Bosch helped BMW turn the 1602 into an electric car in time for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The four-cylinder engine was replaced by a drum-shaped electric motor linked to the rear axle via a standard driveshaft. Interestingly, electricity was stored in a dozen 12- volt batteries mounted on a pallet in the engine bay. They took ages to recharge, but the entire unit could be swapped out in minutes using a fork lift.
The weight added by the 350- kg battery pack had a devastating effect on performance. The electric 1602 took eight seconds to reach 50 km/ h from a dead stop, and it had a top speed of just 100 km/h. Worse yet, it had a range of only 30 km in dense city traffic. BMW built two electric 1602 prototypes that it showcased at the Olympics.
MERCEDES- BENZ LE 306 ( 1972)
Mercedes- Benz had a similar project. The brand saw a market for an electric delivery van that could roam crowded city centres without emitting CO2. The LE 306’s 22- kWh battery pack provided up to 100 km of range at up to 80 km/ h. The pack was mounted on rails so it could easily be swapped out. “At the charging station, the discharged battery is pulled out from the side, while a new one is simultaneously slid in from the other side. It all takes no longer than a normal fuel stop,” Mercedes explained in promoting the van.
Like BMW’s 1602, the LE 3 06 was shown for the first time during the Olympics in Munich. It never reached mass production, but Mercedes manufactured 58 examples to gather data on zero-emissions powertrains.
JEEP DJ- 5E ( 1978)
The U. S. Postal Service ( USPS) experimented with electric vehicles during the 1970s. USPS ordered 350 electric Jeep delivery trucks f r om American Motors Corp. in 1974, according to its archives department. The model was based on the DJ-5, widely used as a mail delivery vehicle in the U.S. at the time, and nicknamed Electruck. It had a top speed of 33 mph (53 km/h), and a 29-mile (47km) range when the 300-plus stops it made daily were factored in. It was so underpowered that drivers were advised to avoid hills, and cold climates made things noticeably worse.
Cost was the final nail in the DJ- 5E’s coffin. USPS calculated the trucks were 50- per- cent more expensive than a gas-powered DJ-5 and ended the project in 1983.
GM EV1 ( 1996)
The EV1’s Saturn- esque design hid one of the most innovative powertrains designed in the 1990s. Its electric motor generated 137 horsepower and 110 poundfeet of instant torque from a 16.5- kWh battery pack. The original EV1 offered about 97 km of range, though later cars with a Panasonic battery pack boosted range to 161 km.
The EV1 was offered only through a lease program in a handful of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson. The decision to stop EV1 project spurred more conspiracy theories than JFK’s assassination. Some even claimed oil majors paid GM to cancel the project. Regardless, a majority of the 1,100 examples built in Lansing, Mich., were crushed.
TESLA ROADSTER ( 2006)
In 2006, a startup named Tesla Motors introduced a Lotus Elise- based convertible in Santa Monica, Calif. Named simply Roadster, the model promised exhilarating acceleration, zero emissions, and usable range. It was an ambitious project, especially coming from a company no one had ever heard of.
Buyers were willing to take a gamble. The first batch of 100 cars sold out in less than a month in spite of a six-figure price tag. Production was delayed several times, but that didn’t stop most Roadster owners from becoming lifelong Tesla addicts. The Model S, Model X, and Model 3 are all build on the foundations laid by the Roadster.
NISSAN LEAF ( 2010)
The Nissan Leaf was an honest, well- thought- out attempt at bringing electric mobility to the masses. It didn’t start life with an internal combustion engine, and was never offered with one through its production run. It doesn’t qualify for the coveted “long- range” label, but it ticked every box of basic transportation, including practicality and relative affordability. Nissan upgraded the Leaf’s powertrain several times, and it’s preparing for the imminent market launch of the brand- new secondgeneration model.
Clockwise from top left, electric pioneers the 1964 Chevrolet Electrovair, the 1900 Lohner-Porsche, the 2006 Tesla Roadster and the 1972 BMW 1602 Electric.
The 1978 Jeep DJ-5E in U. S. post office livery.