For many the idea of owning a fully electric car still seems very futuristic. The petrol and diesel car formula has, you might have noticed, been pretty successful over the last 130 years or thereabouts, so to plug a car in at home and drive around in near silence will feel very sci-fi indeed. But electric cars aren’t that new, not really. In fact, while many car companies today are talking about their all new electric cars, quite a few of them have built EVs before… Here, then, is a list of firsts, and some of them might come as a surprise…
Cars that led the EV charge
Audi e-tron – 2010
The e-tron, as you might be able to see, was based on the R8, and had a battery behind the seats and four electric motors, making it all-wheel-drive and, according to Audi, a “complete quattro”. The battery pack was a 53kWh unit, with a usable 43.2kWh, and weighed around 470kg. The four motors combined, meanwhile, produced 313PS (230kW) and an unbelievable 4,500Nm (3,319lb ft) of torque, enough for a 0-62mph time of 4.8 seconds “if necessary” (the new RS e-tron GT will hit 62mph in a scarcely believable 2.5 seconds) and a top speed of 124mph. The torque split, meanwhile, was 30-70 front to rear, and the range approximately 154 miles.
Now if it seems like a cheat to include a concept in this list then, well yes, it is, but while the concept was exactly that, the e-tron story continued. In 2009 it was said just 1,500 electric cars were registered in Germany, and with Audi keen to develop its electric technology further it continued to work on the e-tron concept. In 2010 the second R8-based e-tron concept arrived, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show. It was slower, less powerful, had less torque and was only rear-wheel-drive, but it was a simpler machine, the idea being it could be more of a sportscar than an outright supercar.
Fast forward just a few months more and you arrive at the Audi e-tron technology platform. All of the work that had been going into the two concepts was actually being put to use, and the car you see in the third and final picture here is, effectively, a fully electric Audi R8. Shown for the first time at Le Mans in 2010 it was driven on the road for the first time at the 2010 Silvretta E-Auto Rally in Austria, with Audi board member Michael Dick, the man responsible for Audi’s technical development, at the wheel. It had all-wheel-drive, 313PS (230kW) and 4,500Nm (3,319lb ft) of torque – essentially it was that first e-tron concept without the concept bodywork.
BMW 1602 Electric – 1972
You thought the i3 was the first electric BMW? Well it might have been the first to be built and sold in large numbers, but the very first was BMW 1602 Electric in 1972.
Work began in 1969 to create two experimental vehicles using the BMW 02 Series as a base, all with the intention of researching and assessing electric powertrains for everyday driving. The two cars had 43PS (32kW) electric motor that had been developed by Bosch and, this being BMW, power went to the rear wheels (for reference, the new BMW i4 has twelve times the power). The motor was cooled by a thermostat-controlled 140W fan, while the electric motor drew power from 12 12V lead-acid batteries from Varta, and these were placed on a pallet in the engine bay – the cars even had regenerative braking systems. The trouble was those batteries weighed a hefty 350kg, although on the positive side they could be removed as a single unit and replaced with a freshly charged pack (imagine doing the same with an i3?).
Performance was, well... glacial: 0-31mph took eight seconds, the top speed was 62mph, and the range was between 19 and 38 miles, depending on how the cars were driven. Even so both were used as support cars for the marathon in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and to transport members of the Olympics’ organising committee and as camera cars. After the Olympics the decision was made that the battery technology was the limiting factor, but that didn’t stop BMW continuing with EV development with cars like the LS Electric, the quirky E1 and the ActiveE.
Fiat Panda Elettra – 1990
The Fiat 500, and new electric 500, prove small cars are in Fiat’s blood, so you’d expect the company’s first EV to be something quite small? Well you’d be right. The first electric Fiat prototype was known as the ‘CityCar’ and unveiled in 1976, an electrified version of the X1/23 prototype that was shown four years earlier at that year’s Turin Motor Show. To say it was a quirky machine was an understatement, but at a concept level at least it got Fiat’s bosses thinking: could there be a future to the electric car?
Fast forward to the 1990s and, after more than a decade of further research and development, Fiat came up with the Panda Elettra, what Fiat dubs its first electric car (sorry CityCar). Built in partnership with Austrian company Steyr-Puch, the petrol engine of the conventional Panda was ditched in favour of a 12PS (9.2kW) DC motor that delivered most of its torque at very low revs, with power coming from 12 lead-acid batteries, two of which were in the engine bay with the motor while the other ten sat in a steel tray in the boot and rear floor (yes, the Elettra was a two-seater). The Elettra had a top speed of 43mph, would hit 25mph in ten seconds and had a range of 62 miles.
There are two things in particular to note here. First, it had a four-speed manual gearbox and, because the motor had so much torque, you could set off from a standstill in third gear. Second, the fuel tank remained and was attached to a small burner, which in turn fed the heating system. Because that doesn’t sound sketchy at all.
A revised Elletra 2 was born in 1992, with a 24PS (17.7kW) electric motor and new nickel-cadmium batteries, but even with all that extra power Fiat pulled the plug in 1998. The reason? The Elettra cost three times as much as a regular Panda...
Honda EV Plus – 1997
The Honda e is a tech fest, a compact rear-wheel-drive EV but, as you might have guessed, , it was not Honda’s first electric car. No, that title goes to the Honda EV Plus.
In 1987 a few people at Honda were looking ahead to the next century, wondering where motoring might go and what fuels would prove most important. The reality of the situation was that battery and electric motor technology was nowhere near as power efficient as conventional fuel, nor it seemed would an electric vehicle be as convenient to use. But Honda’s engineers decided to investigate EVs anyway, knowing the technology would improve with time.
By 1990 there was a CR-X-based EV prototype, and by 1991 there was an experimental electric Civic three-door prototype, although the latter, and the lack of enthusiasm by some involved in the project, lead to a few bust-ups (a man called Junichi Araki, the large project leader for the new EV, saw the car for the first time and shouted at his team: “Why don't you just dig a hole, and bury it!”). Perseverance paid off, though, and 80,000 test miles later Honda unveiled the EV-X concept at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show.
Although this was a concept, the technology underneath actually worked, and after more testing miles, a move from lead batteries to nickel-metal hydride units (which deteriorated less in the real world), many more prototypes and a great deal of cash, the first Honda EV Plus rolled off the production line at the Takanezawa Plant in Japan in April 1997. It had a 66PS (49kW) brushless DC motor in the engine bay, the aforementioned nickel-metal hydride batteries with a 28.7kWh capacity, could run for 130 miles and would top out at 80mph. Zero to 30mph? A gentle eight seconds. It’s thought 325 were built, the final car completed in April 1999 with 300 leased in the USA, 20 in Japan and five in Europe.
The best bit of the EV Plus story? That one set an EV record at Pikes Peak in 1999, with a time of 15 minutes 19.91 seconds, and another was stuffed full of extra batteries, the motor moved to the middle and drive sent to the rear wheels. Now, when can we get that on the Goodwood Hill?
Land Rover Defender Electric – 2013
Although the entire Range Rover and Land Rover range now has a hybrid offering and 60 per cent of their respective ranges will be fully electric by 2030 (Jaguar will go all-electric by 2025), Land Rover doesn’t have an electric car yet. However, back in 2013, Land Rover’s first EV ventured out into the world, a “pioneering research project into the electrification of an all-terrain vehicle”. Can you guess which vehicle that might have been? It was the one, the only, Land Rover Defender.
We might all enjoy seeing and hearing an old-school V8 defender out and about, but seeing an old Defender run on plug-power, a car that looked very similar to the original Series I launched in 1948, is almost as cool. Unveiled at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, the Defender Electric wasn’t, as you might imagine, created as a city dweller, a trendy 4x4 to cruise around Knightsbridge. No, the Defender Electric was created to be a workhorse, one that would help Jaguar Land Rover develop the electric tech it would need in the future.
A Defender 110 with ‘All terrain Electric Research Vehicle’ badging, in July 2013 it headed down from Coventry to Cornwall and the Eden Project. Its assignment was to pull a 12-tonne group of six carriages, filled with up to 60 passengers, around the site, including up a six-degree incline. It also needed to be run all day and charged overnight. Well, if you need to do some serious towing, a Defender is a solid place to start. Although Land Rover didn’t disclose the exact technical details, the Defender Electric was, of course, all-wheel-drive, used Lithium-ion batteries, would run for 50 miles with a 12.5-mile power reserve, and had a top speed of 70mph. The hill decent control system was particularly clever, as 80 per cent of the car’s kinetic energy could be saved on the longest descent on the site, feeding 30kW of energy back into the batteries.
The cost to charge? Just £2, less than a quarter of the price of an amoeba cuddly toy from the Eden Project’s gift shop.
Seat Toledo – 1992
Another car with an Olympics connection, the first electric Seat was not the dinky little Mii but a specially made Toledo, built to accompany the Olympic flame at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and open that year’s marathon.
The car had a 500kg battery pack comprised of 16 individual lead batteries, powering a 22PS (16kW) electric motor. The performance was, well, modest, with a 0-43mph time of 28 seconds, a 62mph top speed and a range of 34 miles, but it didn’t need to be especially quick, it just needed to complete the marathon course at a steady pace.
The car still exists, with a permanent home in Seat’s museum. The old lead batteries have now been replaced with some more modern items, and according to Kurz “nowadays it could do the occasional marathon”. Sounds like a challenge.
Volkswagen T2 Elektro Transporter – 1972
There’s been a lot of noise over the last year or two about Volkswagen’s new electric brand known as ‘ID’, with the launch of the ID.3 and the certifiable smashing of many records with the all-electric monster known as the ID.R (Romain Dumas’ run up the Hill at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard in the ID.R still blows our minds). But roll the clocks back nearly 50 years and you’ll discover what VW calls its electric pioneer: the T2 Elektro Transporter.
A joint project between VW, Bosch, Varta and RWE, this Transporter was propelled down the road by a rear-mounted 22PS (16kW) DC motor with lead batteries providing the power. The batteries, located in the floor and measuring nearly a foot deep, weighed a colossal 850kg, more than an entire Beetle, and because of the reinforcement needed to stop those batteries folding the Transporter in half the car weighed a whopping 2,000kg.
Complicated and heavy though it was, it actually went into limited production, with around 120 vehicles built, sold with various bodies.
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