Auto-Biography: Thinking Small in Syracuse — The PTV (Personal Transportation Vehicle) Project

Man, I really hit a nerve with my Audi Fox recollections. Who would have thought that a simple, square-rigged, German two-door would have elicited such emotion? There are more foxy tales to tell, but let’s stay in Syracuse for this week’s post, and the story of a student project that encompassed a significant portion of the 1975-76 academic year in that Central New York city.

The PTV (or Personal Transportation Vehicle) project envisioned a small flywheel-powered urban vehicle in which charging an electric motor/generator would power a flywheel mounted in a vacuum chamber. The spinning flywheel would then power the electric motor driving the vehicle’s front wheels. The rationale for this…unusual approach was outlined by our faculty advisor, Arthur J. Pulos, who was then the chairman of the university’s Department of Design. In a project introduction which appeared in a supporting brochure, he wrote:

“From an earlier preoccupation with exuberant form and extravagant power in personal transportation the average citizen has advanced to a state of mind which demands economy and serviceability in its means of personal transportation.”

As if that weren’t enough to convince readers that the country was on the verge of a transportation apocalypse, he continued:

“The automobile is now being tamed to take its logical place as simply another technological product which serves the needs of human beings. It is now likely that the more complex urban environment may outlaw personal transportation vehicles while suburban and rural communities insist that they be brought under rational control.”

Sidebar: It might not come as a surprise that Professor Pulos drove a safety-orange Volvo 145 station wagon with a brown vinyl interior and a roof rack. I will refrain from commenting on whether the zero-emissions zones now in effect for some European cities or the various congestion-pricing schemes now being tried to disincentivize inner-city vehicle use represent the first stirrings of this four-wheeled Armageddon…

My PTV concept shown above was proof of this quote attributed to GM’s Bill Mitchell: “Doing a small car is like tailoring a dwarf.”


In my defense, Syracuse University wasn’t the only hotbed of flywheel thinking in the mid-to-late 1970s. A few years later, it was revealed that Garrett AiResearch of Torrance, California had developed a prototype flywheel-powered EV with support from the U.S. Department of Energy. Featuring a pair of motor-generators, a CVT transmission, and a pack of lead-acid batteries, the car was claimed by its engineers to be “ready for a Detroit assembly line in about five years,” according to an article in the October 1980 issue of Popular Science magazine.

With a front end apparently inspired by the (cough) bumper crop of 1970s ESVs, styling was not the top priority for Garrett AiResearch’s flywheel car.


The Garrett prototype weighed 3,400 pounds, with its battery pack representing 1,1o0 pounds. It was capable of accelerating from 0-50 MPH in fifteen seconds with the driver and one passenger aboard. Its estimated driving range on the Urban Driving Schedule then used was a lofty 76 miles (the short range was somewhat of a surprise, since one of the concept car’s two motor-generators was chiefly tasked with keeping the flywheel spinning).

Another view of the Garrett vehicle, showing its battery pack occupying the central tunnel. (Source: Popular Science, October 1980)


As impractical as a flywheel-powered personal transportation vehicle might have been in the mid-1970s, it’s nice to know that we weren’t the only ones suggesting (again in Professor Pulos’ words) “an important shift in basic transportation philosophy among young designers – from an emotional to a rational attitude toward those products which must serve the man-made environment.”

The Garrett AiResearch flywheel car’s schematic. After the country’s two energy shocks, lots of alternative-drive ideas briefly surfaced. (Source: Popular Science, October 1980)


Speaking of a rational attitude toward transportation design, while at Syracuse I had learned that Volvo was in the initial planning stages for an auto assembly plant in the U.S., to be located in Chesapeake, Virginia. (Volvo had been assembling cars from CKD kits in Halifax, Nova Scotia, since the early 1960s, making them the first modern North American automotive “transplant.”) With my youthful naivete, I naturally assumed that since the Swedish automaker was going to be producing cars in the U.S., they must surely need some industrial designers. Sending a cover letter and a resume to their Chesapeake operations resulted in the response below:


As the Syracuse winter turned to spring, I tried not to attach too much importance to Mr. Hughes’ reply, but I couldn’t help thinking about the possibilities…

(Featured image from Mike Greenlar/Central Current)