History Of Electric Cars (1990-1999)

Article by Mark Trotta

The 1980s saw little in the way of electric vehicle development. Up until the popularity of today's Tesla, the Citicar/Commuta-Car was the single best-selling electric car in America.

history of electric cars

Read: Electric Car History 1959-1989

First Modern Electric Car

Bob Beaumont, having been out of the EV business since selling off the assets of Sebring-Vanguard, was busy in Washington DC working towards legislation more friendly to EV builders and owners.

Sometime in the early nineties, Beaumont decided to get back into the EV business and formed Renaissance Cars Inc. to build a wholly new EV called the Tropica, a Sports Roadster.

The Tropica

By 1994, Beaumont had amassed enough money to start assembling 25 vehicles in Florida. However, only 16 pre-production vehicles were completed totally before they were forced to shut down production. Cars #17 and #18 were partially built at that point, but #19 through #22 were only frames with no body panels. There were two pre-production crash-test vehicles built along with the black prototype which made a total of 25.

electric sports car

Picture courtesy of Peter Crisitello

Zebra Motors

In early 1996, Renaissance Cars Inc. went into receivership and it's assets were auctioned off. The majority of the assets, along with the design and production rights to the Tropica were sold to a group of Renaissance Cars investors who founded Zebra Motors. They were working to produce an improved model for 1997 production called the "Model Z".

During this time, Renaissance Cars received investments from some notables including actor Don Johnson, who featured a Zebra on his TV show "Nash Bridges". The Blue Zebra seen here was driven in the TV series.

history of electric cars

Picture courtesy of Peter Crisitello

Lack of continued funding, plus General Motors entry into the EV market, forced this endeavor to fail. The assets of Zebra Motors were eventually sold to another set of investors, who re-branded the company as Xebra Motors.

Xebra Motors

Only two Model Z Cars (both altered Tropica's) were built before Xebra Motors also failed. One is the Roadster seen on the Nash Bridges TV series, and the other was a partially completed Hardtop Coupe.

The GM Impact

In the 1980s, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that America's seven largest carmakers would be required to make 2% of their vehicles emissions-free by 1998, 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003. Soon after, General Motors introduced the Impact, an electric concept car, at the 1990 LA Auto Show.

Developed by a company called AeroVironment, the GM Impact was an electric-powered sub-compact car. After receiving favorable reception for the concept car, GM produced and leased the EV1, which was largely based on the Impact concept car.

General Motors EV1

Produced from 1996 to 1999, the EV1 was the first mass-produced electric vehicle of the modern era from a major automaker. Dimensions were 169.7" (4,310 mm) in length, 69.5" (1,770 mm) in width and 50.5" (1,280 mm) in height. The car's 3-phase AC induction electric motor produced 137 horsepower at 7000 rpm.

history of electric cars

The two-door EV1 was designed from the ground up to be an electric vehicle. To make the car lightweight and more dent resistant, body panels were made of plastic rather than metal. It was also one of the first production vehicles to use aluminum in the construction of the frame.

Within a year of the EV1's release, leasing programs were also launched in San Francisco and Sacramento, California, along with a limited program in the state of Georgia. Approximately 288 (?) cars were built during 1996-1999. By 2002, 1,117 EV1's had been produced. They were not available for purchase, and could be serviced only at designated Saturn dealerships.

Demise Of The EV1

In late 2003, General Motors officially canceled the EV1 program, repossessing and scrapping most of them. About 40 were delivered to museums and educational institutes with their electric powertrains deactivated.

GM EV1 electric car

Several theories prevail about the cancellation of the EV1. Some say that the program was doomed when expected breakthroughs in battery technology did not happen soon enough. GM stated that parts, service, and liability regulations were to blame. Others claim big oil companies had a hand in their demise.


Read: Electric Car History 1959-1989

Read: Micro Car History