Cars that left their mark on elec­tric ve­hi­cle his­tory

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST DRIVING - Ro­nan Glon Driv­ing. ca

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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