A Look at GM’s Electric Cars – Way before the Volt was unveiled by Chevrolet to the Coolaid drinking EV enthusiastic masses, there were other lesser known electric vehicles with the bow tie that helped pave the way for what we are being force fed today.
The evolution of Chevrolets electric cars starts long before the EV1 that was made famous by the 2006 documentary “Who killed the electric car” a film that explores the creation, limited commercialization, and subsequent destruction of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the mid 1990s.
Chevrolet started its EV dabbling back in the 60’s—Gas may have cost only about 34 cents a gallon, but Americans were more concerned about potential air pollution than fuel economy, according to a GM overview on the Electrovair. So why did GM abandon the project? The Corvair was selected by General Motors for its early electrical vehicle design exercises. The 1964 Electrovair I concept was based on an early model 1964 Monza sedan. It was the lightest GM production car available, and its rear drive was ideal for a compact and simple motor installation.
Soon after that Chevy built The Electrovair II, an improved version of 1964’s Electrovair I. Both were based on the rear-engine gas-powered Chevrolet Corvair, whose design provided a convenient location for the batteries. The large battery pack went under the hood, while the electric motor drove the wheels from the back of the car. “The GM electric vehicle concept is based on the belief that an electric car should have performance compatible with modern expressway driving,” press materials for the car said.
The 1966 Electrovan, a converted GMC van which utilized a “hydrogen oxygen fuel cell,” and had a maximum range of 100 to 150 miles. GM built the Electrovan with the same solid state engineering and drive motor as the Electrovair II.
Ultimately the cost of producing the Electrovair and range anxiety would be the major undoing for the electric car in the 60’s. With pending emission and safety regulations set to become law during the late 60’s, the decision to drop any further research on electric vehicles, and to shift these funds to addressing emission technologies. Both Electrovair cars were pure research vehicles, but GM edged closer to a production model in 1977 when it produced the Electrovette.
In the wake of the oil embargo of 1973, GM felt that there might be an opening for an electric vehicle. Similar to the limited-range EV vehicles we have today, GM wanted to produce a family car that would suitable for errands, shopping and short neighborhood trips. The Electrovette was a one-off vehicle that saw duty as a showpiece at civic leader meetings around the country.
Again GM never gave the project the green light, citing that a breakthrough in battery technology was needed to move forward—a goal that still eludes us today. But ultimately I think that gas prices leveling off in addition to the public getting used to paying higher prices eventually ended any need for EV development.
Then GM built and sold one of the most high profile and controversial cars in modern history, GM’s electric EV1. Through the years, the limited production EV1 has been held high by electric vehicle enthusiasts as a poster child for the electric vehicle’s “success”, and ultimate demise.
In 1996, GM introduced its new EV1 electric car at select Saturn dealerships in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and several other cities. EV1s were leased only and no purchase was available. GM needed to maintain ultimate ownership over the highly advanced and extremely expensive vehicles that were using all-new technology. That was their way to feel out the market.
The batteries that would power this new vehicle were Nickel-metal-hydride batteries — the same technology that powers today’s hybrid vehicles — and provided enough energy in Gen 2 (second generation) EV1s for a 100 to 120 mile driving range.
Those who leased the EV1 loved it, and reported that “it was a joy to drive”. As a matter of fact, many celebrities were happy owners and proponents of the EV1. When GM ended the EV1 program in 2003, many owners tried their best to keep the beloved EV1s, protesting at GM holding lots while car carriers pulled in loaded with the returned vehicles that were ultimately crushed.
The EV1 may be gone, but not forgotten; in fact the technologies developed by the EV1 program have been applied to GM’s hybrids, fuel cell vehicles, and the Volt.