Peeling away the layers of the world’s first mass-produced electric car.
It’s 2017 and electric vehicles are on the cusp of going mainstream. Nearly 625,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids are already on the roads of America, and with advancements in battery technology regularly chipping away at range anxiety and charge times, now is the time to remember the car that took the pioneering step into the EV realm. We’re speaking of the General Motors EV1, and as we continue our series featuring the exquisite automotive artwork of Mr. David Kimble, there’s never been a better time to take an exclusive look at this pioneering machine. Even in print form, the EV1 is something special.
That’s because Kimble didn’t do a single EV1 cutaway sketch. Beginning in 1993, the automotive artist had multiple visits with GM to capture the Impact concept car, its components, and the production-ready EV1. Keen to show the world that its vision of an electric car wasn’t a glorified golf kart, GM opened the proverbial floodgates for Kimble and photographer Neil Nissing. The pair shot complete cars and battery packs in Detroit, electric motors and components in Anderson, Indiana, and the power control system in Torrance, California.
Mind you, these were just for the 50 test cars built from the Impact concept – when the EV1 was production ready, Kimble did it all over again. Those efforts led to multiple sketches that detail both the car and its powertrain. As such, the cutaway featured here is the final product of all those efforts – a two-layer illustration of the EV1 featuring the powertrain mostly visible through the interior and body.
As for the EV1 itself, that story actually begins in 1990 with the aforementioned Impact concept, a fully-functional design that received a warm welcome. Spurred by that reception and California’s push for zero-emission vehicles, GM built a small fleet of test cars and eventually brought the EV1 to market in 1996. Cars were available exclusively through Saturn dealerships with a $34,000 sticker price, or roughly $55,000 in 2017 America. That was pricey for a limited-range two-seater, but price didn’t matter because GM only offered lease deals for the EV1 with no option to buy. Even then, only residents in Southern California or Arizona were eligible to get one.
Still, the car launched with no small amount of fanfare. It utilized a T-shaped battery tray that connected front and rear assemblies, sending electricity to a 137-horsepower three-phase electric motor that turned a single-speed transmission. It doesn’t sound much different from modern electric cars, until you get to the 20 lead-acid batteries that offered a range of roughly 60 miles and required 6 hours to fully recharge. NiMH batteries would appear on the second-generation EV1 in 1999, more than doubling the range for the same amount of charge. Even with significant use of lightweight plastic, aluminum, and other materials, the batteries significantly contributed to the EV1’s 3,100-pound curb weight.
Looking carefully at the cutaway, you’ll see the battery tray bisecting the interior (above), much like that of a massive transmission tunnel in a traditional front-engine, rear-drive car. The T section of the tray and rear suspension components are almost entirely visible through the EV1’s rounded body lines, something not always seen in a Kimble vehicle cutaway but possible here because the propulsion system and complete car were actually drawn separately. The magnesium wheels and tires – Michelin Momentums with tread optimized for low rolling resistance – also receive an exceptional amount of detail.
Moving forward we’re able to get a glimpse of the electric motor and drive system to see just how wonderfully simple it all is. Compared with a massive collection of cogs in a typical gearbox, we see the drive and reduction gears and that’s pretty much it. There are no fuel lines, throttle linkages, or visible valve train components beneath the engine cover, just the electric motor itself, a bit of wiring, and a circuit board.
This simple-yet-effective powertrain shuffled the EV1 to 60 miles per hour in roughly nine seconds, with a top speed limited to 80 mph – certainly not Tesla territory but absolutely on-par with a typical late 1990s subcompact. And do you see that GM badge on the front fascia? The EV1 is the only passenger car from General Motors to be branded strictly as a GM vehicle.
Of course, we know the EV1 would ultimately be short-lived. GM officially cancelled the program in 2003, though all lease contracts had been cancelled and cars returned by the end of 2002. Some went to museums, but nearly all of the 1,117 EV1s built were ultimately crushed, much to the dismay of loyal lessees, many of whom flashed considerable cash to GM in an attempt to strike new deals to keep their car.
There are all kinds of conspiracy theories as to why the EV1 ended in such fashion. Some say GM didn’t want to further advance technology that could cut into the lucrative truck and sport-utility segment. Other theories suggest the simplicity of electric cars would take a bite out of GM's equally lucrative parts sales. The more radical notions point to big oil companies stepping in to crush the hopes and dreams of an electric future.
We’ll leave such in-depth debate for another time, but here are a few points to ponder. GM lost money on each EV1 it built, and not just pennies on the dollar. Despite the $34,000 sticker price, it's believed that each car actually cost GM between $80,000 and $100,000. Also, gasoline prices during the EV1's existence hovered around a buck per gallon.
Though reducing emissions was the EV1's primary objective, cheap gas meant there wasn't much financial motivation for people to go electric, especially with the limitations in performance, passenger space, and operating range. It's entirely possible the EV1 just didn't make good business sense at the time, and GM even said as much.
In other words, the EV1 was a fantastic technological effort well ahead of its time.