The story of the first ‘modern’ electric vehicle

GM kept trudging on with the project using many of the lessons learned from the Impact and in 1996 produced the EV1, a brilliant if divisive car even today. The EV1 had a similar Delphi lead-acid drivetrain to the Impact, mounted on a sliding tray along the centreline. The nominal energy capacity of the 26-module, 1,175kg pack was 16.53kWh. For comparison, the latest electric cars have at least 50kWh, usually much more.

It was 4.31 metres long, 1.77 metres wide and weighed 1.4 tonnes. The range was 78 miles in the old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) test, but only 55 miles in today’s updated EPA test. 

The single AC induction motor delivered 137bhp at 13,000rpm and 110lb ft, and drove the front wheels through a two-stage step-down gear. In the interest of battery range, top speed was limited to 80mph, with a sub nine second 0-60mph time.

The really clever bit was the Delco drivetrain management, which converted the DC to AC current, managed the car’s coasting regeneration function, switched the current phase to provide a reverse gear and communicated with the heating and ventilation, along with the battery management systems.

As might be expected from the experience with the Impact, the public response was immediate, with thousands enquiring how they could sign up to pay more than $400 (about £525 in today’s values) per month for an EV1 – the suggested retail price was $34,000 (about £44,000 in today’s values). 

GM built 660 of the first-generation cars, which were leased to celebrities and city fathers as well as residents of Los Angeles, Tucson and Phoenix. It was the first electric car to wear a GM badge, but delivery and servicing were handled by GM’s Saturn sub-brand.

I drove one in the late Nineties in America. It was a first-generation example belonging to a private individual who generously allowed me behind the wheel. Up close, the styling of the composite plastics body was weird and beaky, a little like some of the Saturn cars on sale at the time, but then all those early EVs were pretty weird (think of the Reva G-Wiz, the Corbin Sparrow, or Clive Sinclair’s C5, for example). 

By this time, we were used to the long, low sun-racer style of vehicles barely disturbing the hot air through which they trundled and it was about this time (1998) that Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech had decreed a “one litre” car (one litre of fuel per 100km, or 282mpg), which ultimately begat the fuel-sipping VW XL1.

The EV1 had a complicated entry method of tapping a code into a keypad, and then you swung down into the seat. The dash curved round in front of the passengers and there was a button-festooned central console, with a tall drive selector sticking out like a games console controller. Starting was silent, which was a novelty at the time, and then you swung the lever into Drive.

While the performance wasn’t remarkable by modern standards, as I recall it fair tore off the line, which along with the whine of the electric motor, gave it an otherworldly air. It barely needed a touch of the accelerator pedal to maintain speed and when you braked, the disc/drum set-up was augmented with a selectable electric regeneration system.

Not so good was the ride and handling, which felt compromised by the need to conserve energy. The 175/65/14 Michelin tyres were inflated to 50psi and while the straight-line ride quality wasn’t too bad, there was a trundling sensation on less-than-perfect surfaces. 

In addition, the body control allowed too much roll in corners and the electrically-powered steering was overassisted and without feel. 

With such a limited range, the instrumentation showing the battery’s status (via green bars) wasn’t accurate enough, either. The chap who paid the lease admitted that more than once he’d run out of charge. 

Another problem was the slow charging via the induction port, which required pin-point accuracy in placement of the plug. Even today that technology is some years away while the German system, which is being developed by a consortium of manufacturers, still risks cooking your cat if it sits under a charging car.

But if the driving experience was flawed, the significance of the car was palpable – it really felt special and you could understand why those who had one loved them so much. At General Motors, however, there was some ambivalence, with senior managers thinking that with the EV1 they might have backed the wrong horse as Toyota’s petrol/electric hybrid Prius had started to clean up. 

The audience reception, however, was described as “wonderfully-maniacal loyalty” by EV1 brand manager Ken Stewart. Many of the 660 lessees were wealthy environmentalists and early adopters seeing themselves as riders of the new age and their cars as bellwethers of a less polluting world.

In 1999 GM released the Mk2 version, which cost less to build and had almost twice the range thanks to a 18.7kWh Panasonic nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery replacing the lead acid item – 200 Mk1s were retrofitted with the NiMH battery. The number of US cities where the car was offered was expanded and 457 Mk2s were leased out. Lessees didn’t have long to enjoy them though, because in February 2002 Stewart notified them that the company would be taking the cars off the road. Unlike Honda, Toyota or Smart with their groundbreaking cars, GM refused to renew leases and stored the reclaimed EV1s in Burbank, California. While a few were released to museums with “deactivated” powertrains, the rest were crushed.

As we now know, GM initially pursued the hydrogen fuel-cell route with its innovative Autonomy/Sequel projects, but Bob Lutz, lured back to GM at the turn of the century, thought battery electric hybrid vehicles were the future and diverted funds into the Volt project, which GM called a self-charging battery electric vehicle, to disassociate it from the Prius. The public outcry at GM crushing its remaining EV1 was vocal and in 2003, at the height of the programme, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla in a bid to build a useable mass-market battery electric car. The EV1, even as it was expunged from history, proved a turning point.

There are plenty who think that GM buried its epochal battery-car project, particularly after a consortium of car makers subsequently brought a legal action which crushed the Carb zero emissions requirements. 

The EV1 was a polarising car; those who loved it really loved it, although as Barry Winfield wrote in Car and Driver magazine in 1997, it was “a vehicle that makes sense for very few people”.

These days General Motors produces the battery-electric Bolt, which was recently praised to the skies by President Joe Biden, while the Volt is a rather forgotten misadventure.

I still think The General learned a lot from the EV1 programme, though not all of it was heeded. In the early 2000s GM’s advanced research department held a dinner for a few journalists and some of the engineers who worked on the EV1 project. What lessons did the company learn from the project, we asked?

The engineers were modest to a fault, pointing out that current lithium-ion battery tech and solid-state control systems are different, and that there wasn’t a lot to learn from the EV1 which could speak to the modern breed of electric cars.

“One thing we did learn though,” said one, “was that the recharging process needs to be the same for every car wherever you go. Having different plugs, different length cables, different charge ports on different parts of the car, and different charge providers, really gives customers the pip.”

Hum, have we learned nothing from history?

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