Back on earth, the 1973 oil crisis gave governments around the world a wake-up call, none more so than in America, the country that had embraced the car more whole-heartedly than any other. An oil embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), in retaliation against US support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, produced a spike in oil prices that sent the cost of a barrel soaring by 70 per cent. Long queues became a common sight at gas stations and petrol prices hit record levels. American motor manufacturers had grown fat and lazy, preferring large-capacity inefficient ‘gas guzzlers’ to the small-capacity, more technologically advanced – and fuel efficient – engines used by European and Japanese car makers.
The transport sector was America’s largest single consumer of petroleum – using more than 60 per cent of all gasoline and more oil than the country could produce. It also made transportation a major contributor to air pollution. America’s legislators reasoned that car companies wouldn’t do anything about this unless they were compelled to. Public Law 94-413, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1976, authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to ‘encourage and support accelerated research into, and development of, electric and hybrid vehicle technologies’. If the car companies weren’t prepared to come up with a viable alternative fuel vehicle – the US Government would force them.
However, the administration would face formidable obstacles. The ‘Big Three’ (Ford, GM and Chrysler) were adamant there was no demand for electric cars and, anyway, they couldn’t make one cheap enough to sell it in big numbers. Worse still, electric vehicles had a serious image problem. Drivers thought of electric vehicles as toys not worthy of serious consideration. In many ways, they were.
The Electra King was typical. Built by the B&Z Electric Car Company, in Long Beach, California, it was an electric three-wheeler similar to the BMW Isetta.
Prior to 1972, it was propelled by a 1 bhp DC electric motor (allegedly an army surplus tank turret motor). Given a long enough road and a following wind the Electra could reach a top speed of almost 20mph (30km/h) and had a range of 45 miles (72 km). Continuous development eventually pushed the top speed up to 36 mph (58 km/h). B&Z also manufactured a four-wheel version and the little two-seater was used in airports and factories.
The CitiCar was built between 1974 and 1977 by a Florida company, SebringVanguard, which thought it saw an opportunity to sell a small two-seat electric vehicle in the aftermath of the oil crisis. Bob Beaumont, the New York car dealer behind the idea, had taken his inspiration from the lunar rovers. But the first CitiCar, the hilariously mis-named Vanguard Coupé, was nothing like as sophisticated as the lunar rovers. In fact, it was little more than a modified golf cart. The wedge-shaped nose left it looking like a piece of cheese sitting on four small wheels (the resemblance was especially clear on vehicles painted yellow). Still, the wedge was quite popular at the time (the Lamborghini Countach launched the same year as the CitiCar and the Triumph TR7 was only a year away) and the car was very cheap for an electric vehicle. At less than $3,000 it was half the price of a typical family saloon. It was available in two versions: 36 or 48V producing 2.5 or 3.5 bhp via a GE electric motor. The 36V version had a top speed of 28mph (45 km/h) and the 48V ‘high-power’ version topped out at 38 mph (61 km/h). Range-to-empty was a claimed 50 miles (80.5 km).
As safety was always a major concern for American buyers, the company made much of the aluminium roll cage, impact-absorbing polyurethane bumpers and standard-fit safety belts. The zip-up plastic door windows did nothing for security, however. The bodywork was made from ABS plastic and the ‘high-power’ car weighed 1250 lb (567 kg).
Bob Beaumont must have been one heck of a salesman as he managed to sign up 240 dealerships to sell the CitiCar. Initially, the reaction was very positive. Beaumont told the Baltimore City Paper in 2008: ‘Everybody heard what we were doing in Florida and they came flocking to us like we were the salvation of the world’.
In 3 years the company sold 2,200 examples. At one point, it could lay claim to being the sixth largest car manufacturer in the United States. Sebring Vanguard was also one of the first companies to sell cars in Bermuda, which had banned motor vehicles for many years.
But reservations over the little car’s safety remained and Beaumont found himself constantly on the back foot from suspicious legislators who feared the CitiCar was an accident waiting to happen. During one episode, an angry Beaumont defended his vehicle against legislators in Michigan who were threatening to ban it. The feisty boss took a baseball bat and cracked it against the Citicar’s ABS panels, which shrugged off the impacts without a scratch. Then he asked if he could try the same thing on the car of anyone who still wanted to outlaw his vehicle. However, a damning test in Consumer Reports magazine, which branded it ‘dismal’ and ‘foolhardy to drive’, delivered the kiss of death. Sales never recovered.
When the company failed, the Citicar rights were sold to Frank Flowers of New Jersey who redesigned it, added a better motor, glass side-windows and bigger bumpers and relaunched it as the ComutaCar. Flowers extended the range to include a coupé and a van (some of which were used by the US postal service). Several thousand more of these vehicles were built between 1978 and 1981. In 1986, Flowers placed a ‘For Sale’ ad in The New York Times offering the ComutaCar business to anyone who would take it on for $200,000. He died a couple of years later.
Bob Beaumont remained a keen advocate of electric cars. He never gave up trying to convince a sceptical American public and started another company, called Renaissance Cars, during the nineties to sell a battery-powered sports car called the Tropica. Sadly, Beaumont was a man ahead of his time and the Tropica had nothing but novelty value going for it. Only a couple of dozen were ever built.
Around the same time as the CitiCar was making headway, Roy Haynes, the man responsible for the original Ford Cortina, was designing a rather better looking line-up of microcars for the Electraction company in Essex. The company built four fibreglass-bodied vehicles: a two-door called the Precinct, an open-top sports car called the Tropicana, a beach buggy and a small van. There was also a prototype rickshaw, which used Vauxhall parts, aimed at the foreign holiday resort market. In 1977 the company was confident of success. ‘Electraction’s marketing director has the job of holding back the avalanche of potential customers until production gets underway,’ it said in a press release. Sadly this was just wishful thinking and, despite much publicity, the vehicles failed to sell in big numbers. Electraction gave up in 1979.
Fearing a political backlash over pollution, GM never really gave up on electric cars. In the mid-1970s it returned with the Electrovette, a Kadett converted to DC drive using lead-acid and zinc-air batteries.
About the same time, GM showed off a clay model of an electric-car concept and said a similar vehicle could be on the road by 1985.
The Electrovette was GM’s ‘plan B’ solution developed in case gas prices rose to $2.50 a gallon. If that happened, GM reckoned one in ten cars sold by the middle of the eighties would be battery-powered. But the fuel crisis came and went, as did a smaller one in 1979 after the Iranian revolution, and the cost of a gallon never reached the $2.50 mark. The Electrovette was quietly shelved.
Nevertheless, in 1979 General Motors’ GMC truck and coach division in the US built thirty-five electric vans for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (better known as AT & T) under a US Department of Energy demonstration project. Twenty were delivered to Pacific Telephone Company in Culver City, near Los Angeles, California, for telephone installation and repair work.
George England, AT & T’s Project Manager in Culver City judged them to be ‘very satisfactory’. ‘They fit in well with our short-range use,’ he said, ‘which averages fifteen to twenty miles per day’. The vans certainly stirred up interest among drivers and customers who wondered at their silent operation. AT & T talked about ordering as many as 40,000 to buzz about the entire country and GMC said the availability of zinc-nickel oxide batteries would substantially increase the vans’ range.
In Europe, Fiat produced a series of electric prototypes including the interesting X1/23B two-seater in 1975. As a major manufacturer of small cars, Fiat could appreciate the potential of a compact electric city car. Its most advanced concept was unveiled in April 1977. The Electric Town Car was a micro-sized, front-wheel drive city car with seating for two people and a modest amount of luggage. Fiat claimed the zinc-nickel batteries had a capacity 1.75 times greater than the conventional lead-acid type – enough to give the car a top speed of 47 mph (75 km/h) – sufficient for inner-city use – and a range of 45 miles (72.4 km) at a constant 30mph (48 km/h) – although it was considerably less in the kind of stop–start traffic a city car would most likely encounter.
Unveiling the prototype for the first time, Fiat announced:
Its performance is compatible with normal city traffic speeds even over hilly routes. Characteristics of the new DC propulsion system used – which includes regenerative braking – are considered to be suitable for early application to cars for town use.
Sadly for proponents of electric power, Fiat had a change of heart. Instead of the Electric Town Car, in 1980 it produced the utterly conventional Panda, which was to be Fiat’s cheap, no-frills city car offering for the next 23 years. As for the electric two-seater, it sank without a trace.
The Japanese Government also showed renewed interest in electric vehicles during the seventies. In November 1970, Nissan showed off a striking two-seater prototype co-developed with Hitachi. The car was revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show and the batteries were said to weigh just 330 lb (150 kg). Advances in technology were making batteries more efficient and lighter.
In 1971, the Japanese Government announced a $20m 5-year programme to fund development of battery-powered cars. The same year, Subaru showed off the Electro-wagon XI, which was said to be capable of 55 mph (88.5 km/h). The batteries (a combination of nickel-cadmium and zinc air) and drivetrain were developed with help from Sony and the Shinko Electric Company.
However, despite sporadic interest from Toyota, Mazda and Mitsubishi in electric vehicles, it would be a couple of decades before the Japanese finally had their day.
As the seventies closed, the prospect of a breakthrough in electric cars looked as far away as ever. Despite advances in control systems, aerodynamics and packaging, the battery-powered car was still crippled by a poor range and pitiful performance. Beyond niche markets, like Britain’s fleets of milk floats and for golf ranges the world over, electric vehicles just weren’t a practical alternative to a gasoline-engined car.
However, something had to be done to tackle congestion, noise and air-quality concerns. In places like California, pollution had reached dangerous proportions. A dense cloud of choking petrochemical smog hung over major cities, respiratory problems, particularly asthma, were soaring and the health of children, senior citizens and people with breathing difficulties was a major concern.
Politicians, fed-up with slow progress gave automobile manufacturers and oil companies an ultimatum: come up with a way to reduce pollution or face legislation. Suddenly, battery-powered cars – as the only viable alternative – were back on the agenda. As the eighties dawned, car manufacturers were starting to take the electric car seriously once more.