Yes, I trespassed this time. I feel a little remorse (and do apologize to the owners if they are reading this) but just could not stop myself. I’d been seeing this car in a driveway for over a year now, located in the semi-rural plains to my east that I have occasion to travel every few weeks. For the first few passes I was puzzled as to what it was since there were several large trucks parked around it, then at the beginning of the pandemic they were gone one day and I was able to see a side view but unable to stop. Since then there have always been large trucks parked around it and I didn’t want to disturb the occupants of the house. Then, a couple of months ago, I got lucky. No trucks. I pulled over and furtively yet confidently strode toward the house’s front door, and at the last moment when it didn’t seem that a dog was barking or a curtain twitching, I angled towards the car instead and peeled off the necessary shots that needed to be taken, quickly returning to my vehicle afterwards, unseen.
What we have here, ladies (are there any here?) and gentlemen, is one of the pioneers of the Electric Car Revolution that is now, four decades later, in full swing and only getting better. Yes, the CitiCar/ComutaCar originated before it and was produced concurrently, but that was very minimalist with only two seats, here we have one that the whole family could enjoy. Produced by Unique Mobility of Englewood, Colorado, I present the Electrek 2+2.
You may not recall seeing these on your commute in the 1980s, ’90s, ’00s, or more recent times for good reason. While this model was one of three (the others included a hatchback variant as well as a two seat panel van), production/sales stopped at a best guess of around 50 units, perhaps a few more, but generally acknowledged at less than 100. There are several reasons for this, however this was a serious car to the point that it was sold to the public and the Department of Energy had the Army do a full evaluation of its capabilities.
The late 1970s were a hotbed of innovation, with seemingly daily advances in technology, computers were starting to build mainstream momentum and a legion of inventive Americans were interested in electric vehicles. While there were plenty of homebrew solutions there were few actual companies interested in building something from the ground up, or better said, few companies that succeeded at doing so. Unique Mobility (still in business today as a supplier rather than a builder) was aiming to change that with this car.
In some aspects they started completely from scratch, such as the body which is a mix of fiberglass and polycarbonate, hand molded over a form in their facility. Square headlights were a modern touch in tune with the times and even the butter yellow paint is reminiscent of a very popular shade featured on various high end domestic luxury vehicles of the era. Note also the integrated bumpers as well as the futuristic and sporty black trim. Yes, the overall design is not likely to have spilled from Guigiaro’s fountain pen, but early electrics have always tried to look a little, well, different.
Much of the conventional aspects of the running gear seems to have been provided by the VW Rabbit, with easy parts availability. This electric featured a conventional four speed manual transmission (rare in EVs) from that car, and likely a fair number of other unseen ancillaries. However the electric motor was a 32hp General Electric unit with a Soleq controller. Batteries were a series of 16 6V Globe Union EV4-19 units arranged in a four units of four format via a central tunnel. Loading them was via a tray through the back, sort of like a baker would insert a tray filled with loaves of bread into an oven. Total battery voltage was 96V (16x6V), and total capacity was 150Ah (120min. at 75A rate).
The motor was in the front, with the compartment pretty much completely sealed up underneath and drove the front wheels. I believe it is the earliest EV with regenerative braking. Steering is rack and pinion. As far as the transmission went, it wasn’t really necessary to ever use first and you could in fact leave it in pretty much any gear but the manual recommended 2nd for low speed, 3rd for 20-40mph and 4th for anything above that.
Early advertising materials suggested a top speed of 75mph, however users seem to agree that 65mph is more realistic. Fast it was not. Acceleration to 30mph from a stop took nine seconds, and to 50mph took 30 seconds, verified by US Army testing. Range depended on speed (as it does in all cars), with the Army tests concluding that the average maximum speed in repeated tests was 68.5mph.
Driving at a constant rate of 35mph resulted in an average range of just over 60 miles, at 45mph that reduced to 47miles, and at 55mph to about 28miles. But if you kept it slow, to a steady 25mph, then it would go an average of 90 miles before the test was ended at the point that the car could no longer remain at 95% of the target speed.
There was an onboard charger and per the Army’s test, recharging at a rate of 16Amps with 110V power once 80 percent discharged, after ten hours of charging (i.e. overnight) the car would operate for a further 39.5 miles using their “Cycle C” regime which as far as I can tell used an average speed of 25-30mph. So about 4 miles per hour gained via a slow charge, which is not dissimilar to what a current Mustang Mach-E or Tesla will charge at when using 110V power.
I apologize for the poor interior pictures, with the flat glass it was difficult to get the details I wanted without angling the camera and hence incorporating reflections. However the seats seem to be missing in this one, my research indicates that everything was pretty much covered in a velour material. Note the very Ferrari-esque gated shifter placed in a position familiar to Alfa Romeo Spider drivers as well as pilots of Honda’s CR-V and older Odyssey models. The center tunnel itself reminds of the Lotus Esprit. The Electrek could emulate far less pedigreed vehicles. It certainly looks to me that the steering wheel and stalks are VW items.
Again, hard to see but ahead of the driver is a rectangular display that may have served as the inspiration of that of the Mustang Mach-E, it’s similar in size. Here though the numbers, presumably mainly speed, are displayed in what looks like an LCD 7-segment format display. According to the Army materials, there is no display for range, which may the best way to deal with any anxiety thereof. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Ignorance is bliss. There must be dozens more pithy little sayings to support this.
Speaking of things that can or can’t hurt you, I came across NHTSA crash test footage of this car from early 1981, indicating that volume production was a serious endeavour. As a bonus, the hood flies off, enabling us to look down into it a little bit. The good news is that the doors still open and the cabin barely deforms after a 30mph hit.
The reality is that back then the range probably wasn’t workable for most, especially around here, you’d have to be a real diehard to be able and willing to commit to the range vs speed limitations. However the biggest obstacle clearly was the cost. In 1979 the price for this car was $25,000. Even today many would say $25k as an absolute value is far too much for a low-range runabout, however adjusted into today’s money this equates to almost $92,000.
A 2021 Tesla Model 3 Long Range (353 miles) is under $49,000 today so, yeah. Still, as always, those that want to be first on the block with something new will need to pay and it has to start somewhere with gains over time reducing the prices for anyone that follows.
Panel gaps could be better I suppose, this is likely an early model so should perhaps be forgiven and not harped on, Unique Mobility didn’t have the benefit of over a hundred years and millions of units of auto manufacturing experience…even then it often leaves something to be desired. The Earth Day 1990 bumper sticker is a welcome touch and a handy reminder that people have been caring about the earth for far longer than some would think, with Earth Day as an event officially starting in 1970.
The Electrek is obviously a footnote in EV history, surprisingly there seem to be a decent percentage still in existence with a number of them here in Colorado where they were built. The US Army’s report makes for interesting reading, here it is in PDF form if interested. One day a major automotive museum will surely display a permanent history of electric cars and this one will likely be considered a milestone. Below is a video (not one of mine) that shows a late model one apparently recently acquired driving and slowly maneuvering.