Cohort Sighting: Zagato Zele – Pintsized ’70s Futurism


Zagato is famous for hit-or-miss designs which never never fail to stand out.  Here is one of their lesser known known efforts, the Zele electric car.  Designed for a future in which fossil fuels are scarce, and sold in the mid-’70s, this car wouldn’t be out of place a dystopian sci-fi.  Thanks to r0b0tr10t for this shot of an early solution to the emerging problems of our time.

zagato-zele-02Styled by Giotto Bizzarrini, the Zele had attracted a lot of criticism for its looks, but there’s something very appealing about it to me, and I can’t help but see it as a four-wheeled display of the Brutalist aesthetic.  Just like the relentlessly functional, utopian architecture which bears the same name, this minimalist, one-box shape evokes strongly negative reactions in most people, but there are a select few who understand it and love it passionately.


Believe it or not, the Zele had all-independent suspension, with components borrowed from the Fiat 500 and 124.  Not that it mattered much; Consumer Reports could not recommend the car for a variety of reasons, but the collapse of its front suspension during a braking test certainly didn’t help matters.


As sold in the US, the Zele ran about $4000, a lot of money in those days.  That would explain its sales of only 500 units, and it wasn’t much more successful in Europe, either.  Because the business responsible for distribution was located in Elkart, Indiana, the decision was made to market the car under the Elcar name, which also helped define its role as an all-electric transportation device.  But the name Elcar used to be reserved for the cars made by the Elkart Carriage Company from 1915 to 1931, when the business was presumably killed by The Great Depression.  RVs were also sold under the Elcar name until the late ’60s, but as a mere North American distributor, the business responsible for bringing the new, Milan-built Elcar stateside didn’t add much to the local economy.


Not that the residents of Elkhart would’ve wanted to identify with a tiny box which could barely crack thirty miles per hour and which ran out of juice in about thirty miles.  The blue car featured here in what looks to be a German-speaking country is still an obscure curiosity, but as the difference between this photo and the one at the top shows, it hasn’t remained in one place.  With so few moving parts, if one has fresh batteries, an electric car like this can be easily restarted even after sitting for forty years.  Do you think this one moves under its own power?

Related reading: 1917 Detroit Electric Brougham and 1897 Riker Electric