You might not think it, but the 60s and 70s
were a hot bed of innovation in electric car design.
Environmental and political events collided that got people questioning our reliance on
the internal combustion engine and thinking about alternatives.
So why was so much effort put into electric cars when so few people bought them, and how
close did we come to perfecting hybrid and EV technology?
Let's find out!
There have been electric cars almost as long as there have been cars.
They didn’t need the potentially arm breaking starter-handle, and they were a quiet and
pleasant way to get from A to B. Soon they were outpacing the internal combustion engine,
breaking the land-speed record in 1898 and becoming the first car to an earth shattering
But the cheap price of petrol and additional range consigned the electric car to the scrapheap.
First off is the Henney Kilowatt, released way back in 1959.
Although an American car, it used many body parts from the very French Renault Dauphine.
The project was funded by the National Union Electric Company that also produced Exide
batteries, and was keen to find new ways to use them.
With tweaks the 1960 model had a top speed of around 60mph and a range of over 60 miles.
Although 100 cars were built or semi-built, only 47 were ever sold, many of them to electric
One of the first electric cars of the modern age came out of an unlikely place – Detroit
But the rationale of the Electrovair II wasn’t saving money on petrol, not when it seemed
cheaper than water in the USA in the 60s.
This was to help with air pollution, which was becoming a hot issue, particularly in
Clean Air legislation provided funding to car companies to invest in electric car technology,
and the big car companies were happy to use it.
The Electrovair II would use the Corvair as a starting point.
It was GM’s lightest vehicle and the rear-mounted engine could be removed and easily swapped
for a motor to power the rear wheels.
Best of all, GM had a ton of them on hand after Ralph Nader killed sales by exposing
the car as essentially a death-trap.
The Electrovair II was strictly a concept, based on, you guessed it, the Electrovair I!
It would use silver-zinc batteries, a by-product of military spending.
They were three times lighter than lead-acid batteries and much smaller.
But even with those light batteries, it was still heavier than the petrol Corvair, and
those special silver-zinc batteries were expensive and would only last 100 charges!
Acceleration was similar to its petrol-engined sibling.
It would get to 80mph and had an 80-mile range if driven carefully and would take 6 hours
But those batteries still took up a lot of room – completely taking over the front
boot, leaving no space for luggage!
But GM wasn’t naive.
They realised this wasn’t something that could be taken into production, and that they
had to wait for better battery technology.
With a downturn in aircraft orders, the Scottish Aviation company released its take on the
electric car in 1966 as the “Scamp”.
With the Government worried that a rapid growth in car ownership would result in congestion
and pollution, and backing from the Electricity Board, they created a tiny microcar with a
fiberglass body and 4x 48V batteries.
But its road worthiness test was a disaster with delicate suspension that would collapse
at any moment, and a boot door that opened during the test and the spare wheel fell out!
Barely discouraged, they got none other than Stirling Moss to demonstrate it, but with
a top speed of 36mph and an 18-mile range and a projected high cost to purchase, it
wasn’t going to turn heads.
AMC were also thinking of reducing air pollution with their Amitron in 1967.
They also realised that lead acid batteries were far too heavy, so their concept would
use Nickel Cadmium and Lithium batteries, bringing the weight from 907kg with lead acid
batteries to just 91kg.
The Ni-Cad batteries would be used for acceleration, with the Lithium batteries used for sustained speeds.
And the Amitron was one of the first cars to have regenerative braking.
The combination of innovative batteries and regenerative braking gave the Amitron a range
of 150 miles that’s still impressive today.
AMC wanted to put the car into production, but the expense of the cutting-edge batteries
made that impossible.
Looking like a tiny Nissan Cube, Ford UK produced the diminutive Comuta prototype.
At half the length of the Ford Cortina it was still able to shoehorn four people inside.
It had a 37 mile range and a speed of 25mph, but like all lead acid battery cars it suffered
from awful acceleration.
But there was interest across all car companies in 1967, with BMC charging Mini creator Alec
Issigonis to dream up an electric car of its own.
That same year the UK Electric Vehicle Association put out a press release.
They were proud to announce that the UK had more electric vehicles running on UK roads
than any other country.
What they didn’t make clear was most of them were this.
The humble electric milk float has been around since at least the 1930s, and by the 1950s
had completely replaced horse-drawn milk floats.
Electric vehicles suited milk delivery.
Most routes were fairly short which allowed cheap lead acid batteries to be used, and
they could be recharged every day back at the base.
They were quiet, useful at a time when people didn’t expect engine noise early in the morning.
A high top speed isn’t important when you’re carrying delicate milk bottles around, but
that didn’t stop a souped up Weetabix-sponsored milk float setting a world speed record of 84mph!
Milk floats are getting rarer as more people get their milk from supermarkets.
Ironically in a day when more electric cars are taking to the road, those remaining milk
floats are switching to petrol or diesel power to speed up deliveries.
General Motors released their new electric vision in 1969.
They were keen to show off their research team’s abilities to create cars that ran
on electricity, steam or even nuclear power.
But it was these four prototypes, created a few years earlier, that got the headlines.
The yellow car used a small petrol engine, as did the Sinclair C5-like low-slung silver
three-wheeler, somehow pitched as a commuter car!
But the red and blue cars were more interesting.
The red car was all electric, with a 58-mile range.
The blue car was a hybrid, using both petrol engine and electric power.
It would power the car to 10 mph on electricity, shifting to use the petrol engine at higher speeds.
But like a latter-day hybrid it would charge the batteries while the petrol engine was
running or idling.
GM would recycle it as the larger XP-883 concept car around the same time.
These cars weren’t intended to be driven on regular roads.
At a time when most American cars were the size and shape of a football pitch, these
tiny cars would have been a death trap.
GM envisioned that they would be driven on their own specially created highways.
As an idea, that's sort of a non-starter.
GM was testing the waters with new markets and was watching the increase in popularity
of electric golf carts that wouldn’t just be used on the golf range, but in neighbourhoods
built near them.
Golf carts had been around since the 1930s for disabled golfers but had been gaining
popularity for lazy golfers since the 1950s.
They’ve been modified to become general purpose Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles and
today are used in locations like airports to transport people with difficulties walking,
or by the police to move around in urban areas.
Also thinking about North American air pollution, BMW created the 1602 E concept.
It had a range of 38 miles, a top speed of 62mph and it used an early form of regenerative braking.
With Munich holding the Olympic Games in 1972, BMW publicly displayed the car and used it
to support the long-distance races such as the marathon.
Probably the most famous electric car of the 70’s is not what you would think of when
you thought of an electric car.
In 1971 NASA blasted a Saturn V to the moon, and neatly folded on the Lunar Lander was
the all-electric LRV or Lunar Roving Vehicle.
Two more were sent to the moon where they covered an impressive 56 miles.
Power came from 2x 36V silver-zinc potassium hydroxide batteries.
Needless to say, they weren’t rechargeable!
Each rover had a theoretical range of 57 miles in the low lunar gravity.
The focus in the 60s had been around using electricity to reduce air pollution, but with
the 1973 oil crisis electric cars were pitched as a way to cut our reliance on petrol.
Middle East oil nations stopped exporting to many western countries for their perceived
support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
Over a few months this quadrupled the price of petrol,
and there were times you couldn’t even get it at all.
Enfield Automotive had tested the waters in 1969 with the Enfield 465 prototype, but they
must have thought their timing was perfect when they released the Enfield 8000 in 1973.
The tiny car had a 55-mile range (if you were going downhill!) and a top speed of a whopping 48mph!
But it was tiny!
With a wheelbase 8” shorter than a Mini, it looked like a Reliant Kitten that had been
left too long in the dryer.
But that tiny size would make it a perfect city car.
It was built on the Greek island of Syros, as its backer was a Greek millionaire.
There were high hopes that this would be the start of something big, and a Jeep-style was
produced for the car rental market on the Greek islands.
They expected charging subsidies from the Electric Board would make running it cheaper,
but with it costing the same price as a 3L Ford Capri, and being double the price of
a Mini, only 120 were ever made between 1973 and 1976.
But one of those 120 was transformed into something truly special.
Jonny Smith threw out the old lead acid batteries and replaced it with modern technology to
make it the fastest electric car on four wheels.
With an estimated top speed of 140mph it could get to 60mph in under 3 seconds!
The Italian coachbuilders Zagato had their own take on an electric car in 1974.
They were famous for the Alfa Romeo Guilietta TZ and Junior Z.
So, with their design knowledge of sleek Italian cars, they designed this boxy thing.
It’s a shape so simple, it looked like someone designed it using Lego!
The Zele ran on good old lead acid batteries, giving it a range of 50 miles.
The Zele had a spartan interior with a complicated 4-position speed selector and a 2-position
foot pedal that could be used to select six forward speeds and two reverse speeds.
The Zele 2000 was fitted with a larger 2000W motor that featured a boost switch which,
once at top speed, weakens the motor's magnetic fields in the field coils to produce less
torque but a greater top speed of… 30mph.
Despite selling it in the USA as the Zagato Elcar, only 500 were made and production ended
The same year, something of a car sharing revolution was happening in the Netherlands.
Some Amsterdam residents wanted to reduce traffic, so hit upon the idea of a car sharing
scheme, years before ZipCar.
They named their scheme “Witcar” or “Whitecar” in English, and used a fleet of 35 white and
The whole system was controlled by a PDP-11 minicomputer.
The scheme failed because of the car’s long recharging times, meaning few were available
when needed, and the cars were rarely where you wanted them as traffic tended to all flow
in the same direction, a problem London’s Boris bikes have, requiring large vans to
move bikes around during the day.
Back in the USA and hoping to cash in on the oil crisis was CitiCar.
Released in 1974, it featured a simple triangular shape that was generously referred to as a
coupe (or coupé if you like).
With a top speed of 38mph and a range of 40 miles, the CitiCar was certainly confined
to city use.
The company was sold in 1977 and the car renamed as the Comuta-Car until 1982.
It was produced in Sebring, Florida and sold 4,444 cars.
Later in its life comically large bumpers were added to comply with US safety laws,
although it’s unlikely the CitiCar could do enough damage to other cars or pedestrians
to warrant their inclusion.
The Comuta-Van was also introduced for the US Postal Service as a delivery van.
American Motors take on the electric vehicle was the 1974 Electruck, based on the Jeep DJ.
It used 2x 27V lead-acid batteries and had a 33mph top speed with a 29-mile range.
352 were also sold to the US Postal Service as delivery vans as a way to help reduce city pollution.
With oil crisis fever gripping the world, a desire for independence from the wills of
Middle East countries, and oil prices expected to go higher and higher, the large American
car companies produced new concepts to test the water with customers.
First out the gates was GM with their third electric vehicle concept in 10 years, the Electrovette.
GM removed the engine from a Chevrolet Chevette and fitted good old lead acid batteries.
The top speed was 55 mph with a range of 50 miles.
GM had hopes of putting it into production in the 80’s, with 10% of cars being electric
by the 1990’s.
AMC tried again with the 1977 Electron.
If you thought it was the same as the Amitron from 1967, you’d be right, although AMC
hadn’t spent the past 10 years just sitting on their hands.
The updated Electron had side mirrors and a new exterior colour!
Because nothing says 1970s more than orange paint!
But Ni-Cad and lithium batteries hadn’t got any cheaper and it faired about as well
as the original Amitron concept.
At the end of the 70’s, Garrett, the turbocharger company, were sponsored by the newly created
Department of Energy to produce an experimental car.
It used a regular array of lead acid batteries, but used a novel concept of a flywheel to
store energy when braking, a concept later championed and productised by the Williams
Formula 1 team for applications like London buses.
But those lead acid batteries would still need replacing after only a few years.
Over at Chrysler, again with the Department of Energy’s help, they were pitching the
remarkably similar looking ETV-1, with the help of General Electric.
It would feature regenerative braking, a top speed of 65mph and a 100 mile range.
It would also use a novel T-shaped battery pack that was easily replaceable, the same
concept tried by Tesla over 30 years later.
With the heavy weight of lead acid batteries, electric car acceleration was severely hampered,
and with the space they took up, the cars just weren’t practical.
The 80’s and 90’s brought more EV developments, but the key ingredients to make a successful
hybrid and EV were there by the late 70s.
Regenerative braking, hybrid engines, and lithium batteries.
Toyota would put them into a winning hybrid package in the late 90s, but it would take
cheaper, lighter, smaller lithium ion batteries in the next century to make fully electric
vehicles a practical alternative.
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