1997 General Motors EV1
1997 General Motors EV1. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When General Motors showed its Impact electric concept car in 1990 it was another chapter in the long history of trying to promote a successful electric car. That history dated from the infancy of the automobile, and while electrics enjoyed brief popularity in the early part of the 20th century, they were soon overtaken by the gasoline engine. The electric’s main drawback was the short driving range which limited it largely to urban use, a problem that still persists.

We are talking about a car that is powered by an electric motor energized by on-board batteries recharged from an outside power source. It should not be confused with a hybrid gasoline or diesel/electric vehicle which has both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, with batteries that are charged by the engine. A hybrid doesn’t need to be plugged in.

In part, the Impact prompted the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to legislate that by 1998 in California, two percent of all cars sold by auto manufacturers must emit zero emissions (meaning electric). This was to rise to 10 percent by 2003. CARB conveniently ignored the fact that the electricity usually came from fossil fuelled power plants.

The 3 by 98 law was a classic case of legislation attempting to drive technology, and it would eventually be abandoned when it was realized that it was impractical.

But in spite of the history, GM persisted, and in 1996 introduced its EV1 (Electric Vehicle 1) car to the public. Because battery power deteriorates badly as the temperature falls, GM offered the vehicles by lease only in the Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix areas.

GM spent some $1.5 billion (U.S) producing an attractive, highly sophisticated little, two-passenger electric car that was as close to state-of-the-art as possible. Its sleek coupe body had a coefficient of aerodynamic drag of just 0.19 when most cars were over 0.30. It rolled on Michelin 175/65-14 low resistance self sealing tires (no spare or jack required) mounted on aluminum wheels, and had a lightweight plastic body over an aluminum space frame.

The power brakes (disc front, drum rear) and rack-and-pinion steering were electrically operated, and the EV1 had such conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and locks, AM/FM/cassette/CD sound system and cruise control.

The low two-seater was quite compact at only 4,310 mm (169.7 in.) long on a 2,112 mm (98.9 in.) wheelbase. It was a mere 1,283 mm (50.5 in.) tall. The real downside was a weight pushed up to 1,361 kg (3,000 lb) by a 533 kg (1,175 lb) pack of 26 12-volt lead acid batteries mounted under the car.

The EV1’s front wheels were driven by an AC electric motor rated at 137 horsepower from 7,000 to 13,000 rpm. Torque was 110 lb-ft developed from zero rpm to 7,000. Suspension was A-arms and coil springs in front and a rigid axle with coils and control arms at the rear.

According to Car and Driver magazine (3/97) the EV1 was very quiet in operation with performance that was quite adequate. They recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.4 seconds; top speed was governed at 129 km/h (80 mph). The electric’s usual driving range limitation was still present. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated the EV1 at 146 km (90 mi) highway and 129 km (80 mi) city. Car and Driver’s observed “real world” range during their road test was 96 km (60 mi).

Getting under way was almost as easy as a gasoline car. The driver entered a five-digit code on the console-mounted keypad, pressed the “RUN” button, moved the shift switch to drive (there were Neutral, Drive, Park and Reverse positions), and stepped on the accelerator. The “fuel gauge” was a charge indicator on the instrument panel that showed the distance left in the batteries, calculated on power usage during the previous few minutes of driving.

The EV1 was recharged by plugging it into an electrical source which energized a small portable charger carried in the car. It recharged the battery pack in about 14 hours. A faster way was the GM “Magne Charge” charger that recharged in under three hours, and had to be leased from GM. There was also a small amount of on-board regenerative charging during coasting and braking when the electric motor temporarily converted to a generator.

When GM began offering the EV1 there was a modest response. A few EV1 drivers were really enthusiastic, but generally the public yawned and uptake was so slow that the cars began piling up on dealer lots. Finally in 1999 GM stopped making the EV1 after approximately 1,000 had been built. It, like Toyota, had discovered that there was limited interest in an all-electric car.

In 2006 Sony Pictures produced a Michael Moore-type “documentary” film entitled, “Who Killed the Electric Car”. Among the “villains” in the EV1’s death were GM, the U.S. federal government and even CARB. But the real killer was the apathy of a public that was not interested in electric cars with the limited driving range provided by the available battery technology.

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