Museum Classic / Automotive History: 1947 Tama E4S-47 – Arch-EV-ological Artefact

This week, we are going back to the weird and wonderful world of JDM – the twist here being that the cars we’re going to examine are genuine rarities, even in Japan. Today, we pay a visit to the big Nissan store in Ginza, which has a small rotating cast of exhibits from the carmaker’s museum collection. Some of those are fairly common-or-garden Datsuns, but this one was a different (electric) kettle of fish.

Digging through multiple strata of poorly-translated articles on the web, I think I have a relatively coherent grasp of the Tama now. The story begins with the Tachikawa Aircraft Co., based in Tachikawa city in Tokyo Prefecture, on the banks of the Tama River. Like all Japanese aircraft manufacturers, the company and its airfield came under US Military control; aircraft production was put on hiatus, so the firm had to dabble in various other products, including trucks and automobiles.

Initially called Tokyo Electro Automobile Co., the company’s car branch started with a tiny pickup truck prototype based on an Ohta chassis in late 1946. The choice of going electric was born out of necessity rather than choice: petrol was extremely hard to come by in Japan at the time, especially for private car use. Petrol-powered car production was near nil, even for established manufacturers such as Toyota or Datsun, and had been so since about 1943. So EVs started to appear here and there – many home-made otaku contraptions. The Tama was one of the more successful ones made in tangible quantities.

How many were made is a matter of quite a lot of speculation, though. One source claims 10,000 – probably for the whole history of the marque, and most likely a lot of those were trucks. This E4S passenger car type was only sold in 1947-48, at which point the firm changed its name to Tama Electric.

Tama evolution, clockwise from top left: EOT-47 truck, E4S-47 sedan, 1948 Junior, 1950 Senior (also below).


In 1948, the passenger car’s body was completely revamped and its name was changed to “Junior.” This was quickly followed by an even larger “Senior” model in late 1948; both cars got a modernized four-door all-steel body in 1950.

The original Tama chassis was as basic as could be, even by the standards of 1947: beam axle up front, live at rear, leafs all around and mechanical brakes. But then the little car was not meant to be a limo or a racer. The 40V / 160A lead-acid batteries located in a drawer under the front seats allowed the Hitachi DC motor to run for 65km, providing the rear wheels, via a two-speed gearbox, with 4.5hp at a recommended cruising speed of 28kph (max speed was 35kph).

I was not able to catch a shot of the dash, so this shot from the web, which I think was originally done by Nissan, will have to do. As we can see, interior space was on the tight side, the cabin being less than 1.2m wide – probably closer to 1m. But then, this was designed for Japanese folks of the time… And the times were lean.

The fact that this car was only produced for a year is probably a sign that Tama themselves thought they could do better, and apparently the Junior and Senior that followed were a lot less crude and had much better range – some sources claim 200km for the Senior. But the Japanese EV boom was not to last.

French wartime EVs, clockwise from top left: Mildé-Kriéger, Arzens, Pierre Faure, CGE Tudor, Electraph, Bréguet, Satam, Peugeot VLV.


There is an interesting contemporary parallel in the French EV boom of 1940-45. The circumstances were similar: the country had lost the war, was under foreign occupation and its automotive production and access to petrol were severely curtailed. Literally dozens of EVs started to appear in 1940-41 – some made by major manufacturers like Peugeot, Rosengart or Hotchkiss, others started ex-nihilo by enterprising engineers, and yet others made by firms whose products were no longer legal, such as aircraft maker Bréguet. By early 1944, manufacturing anything had become nearly impossible, EVs included, and by 1945, liberation made EVs pretty moot anyway.

The Japanese EV boom of the late ‘40s started because of the same reasons as the French one did earlier in the decade, but it ended for slightly different reasons. In 1949, US authorities officially lifted the ban on private automobile sales, enabling the industry giants (Toyota, Nissan, Ohta) to wake up from their slumber. In 1950, the crucial competitive edge that EVs had enjoyed was abolished when the Korean War caused lead prices to go up ten-fold and the US authorities turned the oil tap back on in full.

With their costs going up and petrol prices going down, EV manufacturers were squeezed out of existence in short order. But Tama were “too big to fail” (and had a lot of talent in-house to avoid failing anyway), so while trying to peddle the last EVs they had in stock through 1951, they worked on re-engineering the Senior into a higher-end thermal engine car, to be launched in 1952. In doing so, they merged with Fuji Precision Industry, a branch of Nakajima Aircraft (itself the predecessor of Subaru) that specialized in engines.

This Tama-Fuji car company then launched their 1.5 litre AISH model in 1952, albeit under a different name – the Prince. Hence why this Tama is now part of Nissan’s heritage collection: Tama begat Prince, which merged with Nissan in 1967. So now Nissan are displaying the E4S-47 as an ancestor to the Leaf, which is a little exaggerated, but technically kosher. It still took Nissan until 1998 to start dabbling in EVs again with the R’nessa-based Altra. Some ideas take a long time to be revisited…