Electric Car History (Early Years)

Up until the popularity of today's Tesla, electric cars were a footnote in automotive history.

history of the electric car

Beginning around 1830, inventors in both Europe and the U.S. began experimenting with battery-powered vehicles. By 1900, electric cars (EV's) accounted for about a third of all vehicles on the road.

Over the next few decades, many styles of electric vehicles starting appearing. U.S. based companies included Baker Motor Vehicle, Columbia Electric, Detroit Electric, and Studebaker.

Detriot Electric car

The car in the above and below pictures is a 1917 Detroit Electric, which presently resides at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon. The WAAAM Museum has one of the largest collections of still-flying antique aeroplanes and still-driving antique automobiles in the United States.

Detriot Electric car

Early examples of the Detroit Electric Car featured a rechargeable lead acid battery, with later models having an Edison nickel-iron battery. They were advertised as getting 80 miles between battery recharging.

Popularity of electric cars tailed off around 1920, due to several reasons. First was their high cost. Henry Ford's new mass-production techniques made gas-powered cars significantly cheaper than electric cars.

Other reasons for their decline in popularity were they weren't able to travel as far or go as fast as equivalent gas-powered cars. Electric cars were also more difficult to service. By 1930, interest in EV's faded and would not resurface for several decades.

The Henney Kilowatt

Produced from 1959 to 1961, the Henney Kilowatt microcar had a claimed top speed of 60 mph and a range of 60 miles. They were produced by Henney Coachworks and the National Union Electric Company. Although innovative, the Henney Kilowatt's high price discouraged potential buyers.

Electric Corvair

Among automotive prototypes lost to time was the electric Corvair. In 1964, General Motors built the "Electrovair", a Corvair with the rear-mount engine and transmission removed and replaced with electric system components.

In 1966, a more powerful "Electrovair 2" had a 115 horsepower (versus earlier 90 horsepower) AC-induction motor combined with expensive, silver-zinc batteries. Although never offered to the public, GM touted the electric Corvair as having a top speed of 80 miles-per-hour and a range 40-80 miles.

Electric Vehicle Symposium

The first Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS) took place in 1969. It began as an academic forum for global networking and the exchange of technical information for electric vehicles. Since then, they have been held every 12 to 18 months in different cities and countries all over the world.

Lunar Moon Vehicle

NASA helped raise the profile of the electric vehicle when it's electric Lunar rover became the first manned vehicle to drive on the moon in 1971.

BMW was one of the first major Automotive manufacturers to offer an electric car. In 1972, they produced the 1602e, an EV based on a standard production sedan fitted with a dozen 12-volt batteries. After removing the engine and the transmission, engineers installed a 43-horsepower electric motor in the transmission tunnel. Travel range was 37 miles on one charge.

Gas Shortages and Emissions

It was the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, which brought about gasoline shortages and high prices, that sparked renewed interest in electric-powered cars. In the same year, General Motors developed a prototype for an urban electric car, which was displayed at the Environmental Protection Agency's First Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development.

The Zagato Zele

During the seventies, the Italian company Zagato produced a small electric car called the Zele. With chassis and suspension derived from the Fiat 500 and Fiat 124, the Zele could reach aspeed of 45 mph, with a range of 60 miles when fully charged.

history of electric cars

The Zagato Zele was sold in the U.S. as the Elcar, with an average cost of $4,000 to $4,500. Approximatley 500 examples were built.

Bob Beaumont and Sebring-Vanguard

In the early 1970s, Bob Beaumont was very interested in EVs and spent time working with and for several people and companies that were looking into or attempting to enter the market with their EV conversions. In late 1973, he took steps and started his own company called Vanguard, selling highly modified golf-carts that would meet most roadworthy standards, but fall under a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) exemption for lightweight vehicles under 1,000 pounds.

Vanguard electric sports coupe

Soon after the company name was modified to Sebring-Vanguard, to reflect the City in Florida where the EV factory was located. Sometime in 1973, the Vanguard Coupe was the first of several micro car models the company would produce.

The CitiCar (1974-1977)

After the NTSB deleted their under 1,000 pound exemption that Beaumont's first EV had been built under, the CitiCar was designed and built. With Beaumont as it's creator, it was basically an experiment in what it would take to make as minimal a vehicle as you can and yet still meet the then NTSB standards for an automobile.

Vanguard-Sebring's SV/36 CitiCar made its debut at the 1974 Electric Vehicle Symposium, held in Washington, D.C. The CitiCar had a top speed of about 28 MPH for a maximum of 35-40 miles.

The SV/36 was a 36 Volt DC model but almost immediately was upgraded to the SV/48 which was the mainstay 48 Volt DC model most CitiCars are. The way to tell the difference between the two is count the number of six volt batteries under the seat. Through 1975, and first half of 1976 (those built before January of 1976) Beaumont built the SV/48 as a roadster.

electric cars history

Starting in late December 1975 through May of 1976, Beaumont started to build/sell a slightly modified version sometimes referred to as the transitional or 1976-1/2 model CitiCar. The 29 changes made at this point were not done all at once but were made over a number of vehicles with some having one but not necessarily all the change.

By May of 1976 all the changes had been incorporated into the final product. These cars can be referred to as Hatchback Coupes as they now had full side doors with sliding windows instead of the pop out Roadster type in the SV/36 and SV/48's. On these coupes the back window now opened like a hatch for easier access to the behind the seat area, also.

One of the major changes made in this transitional model was the move from the 3.5 horsepower Terrell Axle motor to the 6.5 HP Dana axle motor. An easy way to tell the difference is to note the location of the drive motor. If the motor is located above and to the passenger side of the axle than it is definitely the earlier Terrell (gulf cart style) axle indicating the SV/36 or 48 Roadster. However, if the motor is mounted to the front of the axle and feeds directly into the pumpkin, than it is the later Dana with the bigger 6.5 HP motor. This configuration was used exclusively on everything produced after 1975.

During 1975, Sebring-Vanguard produced somewhere around 1,500 EV's. This made Beaumont's company the sixth largest automaker in the U.S, behind #5 Checker Motors, but far ahead of #7 Avanti and #8 Excalibur Motors.

From May to August (or there-about) for 1976, Beaumont upgraded some earlier unsold SV/48 models to the newer 1976-1/2 version. These are sometimes referred to as the "A" Models since their serial number all have an "A" suffix at the end. All of these "A" Model Coupes have the 29 upgrade changes of the 1976 model. While the serial numbers in these "A" suffixed vehicles does not conform to the sequential pattern of the earlier (pre May 1975) vehicles, they do fill in gaps from these earlier ones that are missing confirming the rebuild/upgrade scenario.

In 1976, the United States Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act, which authorized the Energy Department to encourage research and development in electric and hybrid vehicles. Prototypes and limited production EV models began to surface from several major automotive companies.

In late 1977 into early 1978, Beaumont made the last CitiCar change by offering the longer wheel-base version referred to as the CitiVan. This model is easily identified because it is the only CitiCar with a side back window. Vanguard-Sebring was dissolved in 1978, and the assets sold to pay off debts incurred, and to avoid an NTSB fine that was pending.

electric car history

Read: History Of Upgrades and Changes to C-Cars

A major portion of the assets from Sebring-Vanguard were sold to a New Jersey business man named Frank Flower, who owned several other companies. Not wanting any problems that might arise with the CitiCar or Sebring-Vanguard names, Flower decided to start his own company called Commuter Vehicles, Inc. (CVI) to build his version of this light weight EV called the Comuta-Car.

electric CitiCar

The Comuta-Car (1979-1982)

The Comuta-Cars were based on the 1976 CitiCar, with the major difference being that the batteries were now located behind the front and rear bumpers, not under the seat as the original CitiCars were. This gives the Comuta-Car it's distinctive extended bumper look.

There were a number of other changes including various frame strengthening and safety additions, as well. Comuta-Cars were built from 1979 to December of 1981, under a special exemption from the NTSB (National Traffic and Safety Board); with those built from August to December 1981 registered as 1982 models.

histort of electric cars

It is speculated that most, if not all, of the 1979 production were upgraded SV/48 CitiCar's like those built by Beaumont in his "A" Model CitiCar's; as these 1979 Comuta-Car's also have the "A" suffix at the end of their serial number. It should be noted that while company records have vanished over the years, the serial numbers of all "A" suffix C-Cars are not duplicated in any of the earlier SV 36 or 48 models. It is also not clear if Frank Flower started CVI as a separate company or a division of General Engine, one of his other companies.

1979 Comuta-Van

For 1979 only, in addition to the Comuta-Car's, Flower also assembled some of Beaumont's longer wheelbase Citi-Vans, but under the name Comuta-Van. These 1977 and 1979 models are referred to as the short wheelbase Vans or Citi-Styled Vans. So far, it looks like Beaumont built numbers 1 through 10 as the 1977 Citi-Van. Serial numbers 11 through 23 are known to be 1979 Comuta-Van's. These have separate serial numbering than the CitiCars or Comuta-Cars so are easier to track with their limited number. The 1979 Comuta-Vans are the only CVI built EV's with the batteries still under the seat.

electric car history

To help identify this group of early vehicles they are most often referred to generically as C-Cars for an easy classification. Current owners of these unique EV's have formed online internet connections on both YAHOO and FaceBook.

Read: C-Car Online Registry

Electric Postal Vans

In 1980, businessman Frank Flower obtained a government contract with the United States Postal Service to build 500 Electric Postal Vans. However, these had to be built to strict governments specifications. Thus, the Postal Comuta-Van is a much larger and higher voltage EV than previous models.

Most of these USPS EV's are registered as 1981 and 1982 Vans. At some point the contract was canceled due to problems between CVI and the USPS that eventually wound up in federal court. At this time, serial number 367 is the highest numbered Postal Comuta-Van known to exist. Some of these Postal Comuta-Vans were sold to the public with minor alterations as the 1981 and 1982 regular Comuta-Vans as well.

electric postal van 1981

Pictures/Citicar information courtesy of Peter Crisitello

After January of 1982, some leftover Comuta-Cars and Postal Vans were sold without serial numbers in whole or as kits. They were to be registered in their individual states as home built EV's, or for off-road use. Frank Flower eventually won his court battle with the USPS, but died shortly after.

Read: Electric Car History (1990-1999)

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