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.
Wow, the styling isn’t half bad as far as early EVs go, looks almost like the resurrected Avantis fro the 80s and 90s
I’m pretty sure this is the ugliest car I have ever seen.
Wow, I do not remember these at all – which is interesting as I remember the CitiCar quite well. This was quite the find, although if they were made locally that probably increases your odds.
The really interesting comparison for this car would be one of the pre-1920 electrics, which was the last time they were commercially viable for certain kinds of use. There were many advances in tech of all kinds between 1920 and 1980 but my recall is that basic batteries and electric motors were not that far apart in their capabilities between those years. In contrast, the Teslas and other modern electrics have evolved to an entirely new thing from what electrics were in any prior age – which is not news to you as a guy whose family uses one daily. I am not seeing Mrs. Klein being open to a trade for this older model. 🙂
If it can keep jelly beans out of the floor vents, a trade might be possible. 😉
Yeah, I think you have my wife figured out pretty well…she’s somehow not interested in the collector value here. 🙂
You do realize that Detroit Electric was still making cars in 1939? Granted, they were the only maker left, and the cars were rather built to order for specialized purposes, but they were still in production thru that year.
Remember that episode of The Simpsons when Homer designed a car for his brother’s company? This car looks like what they might have come up with if Homer had been told to design an electric/battery powered car.
I realize that fiberglass and plastic molding technology placed some constraints on designers back 40-45 years ago, but this car looks like they either couldn’t decide on whether to build a hatchback or a trunked car, whether they wanted the engine in the front or the back, but to the designers credit they made the windows usefully big.
It’s cute. Kinda looks like a kid’s drawing of a mustang II or an Avanti to me
There’s a pic of one of these in two-tone blue which actually doesn’t look half bad. If only they hadn’t went with that ridiculous dip in the front doors.
And I’m quite stunned that they were able to find 50 buyers for these at $25k. As stated, that was some real money back in 1979. You could get a Mercedes 280SE for that or multiples of just about any domestic car. You know, like a Chevette with four spares. But for the early adopters, it must have been the most futuristic thing on wheels.
It’s not clear to me just how seriously Unique Mobility pushed private sales, but their strategy was interesting. The company billed the Electrek in promotional materials as an indulgence “for the man or woman who has everything.”
Or in other words, as an accessory to the (then) obligatory Mercedes, such as the one in this publicity photo below. But I’d love to know just who these few dozen private buyers actually were.
This was a great find… I’m glad Jim trespassed a bit to get these pictures!
I am wondering if putting in Ion lithitun batterys in if range & speed would go up enough to get some use out of its ? .
Definitely would pick up the range (while you’re at it, change the charging port to the standardized J-1772). To really make it work, though, you’d have to upgrade the controller. While I have no idea what this used (mechanical or electronic), the CitiCar’s controller was nothing more than a series of mechanical relays that clicked on or off depending on speed, adding or subtracting one of the three (? – going on memory here) deep cells under the seat to increase power.
Vintage EV’s would be easy to unobtrusively restomod, since everything mechanical is hidden, and if it does show, is completely unfamiliar to the majority of car show goers. You could always do the whole gamut, replacing the motor, controller, and battery pack with something more modern (components out of a wrecked Tesla or Leaf?). Which means you’ve improved range and acceleration.
Now you’re next problem is that most EV’s of this period had really third rate steering and brakes. Especially brakes.
In those rare occasions you see one these vintage EVs in quasi-operational conditions, there are invariably all kinds of Rube Goldberg-looking exposed wires and connectors. Not all that different from any old car that’s not valuable enough to spend the money to properly restore and resurrect the poorly engineered original pieces (most of which are made of unobtanium, anyway).
In fact, it reminds me of that guy in southern Indiana who specializes in transfering wrecked Prius or Leaf mechanicals into, well, just about anything.
I think Jay Leno is doing this with a Baker Electric. It uses batteries and maybe a motor(?) from a Nissan Leaf.
Sure. The lead acid batteries were the limitation. You could get as much range as in a modern EV depending on the size of the li-ion battery pack.
But the limitations of the rest of the car would probably not make it worth the effort. It looks a bit primitive in there, as well as cramped between the door and that big tunnel.
There was also a longer-bodied hatchback/panel van model that used taillights from a GM H-body.
Looks like a pregnant AMC pacer
Another reader here who had no idea that this car existed previously. Although, admittedly, I had moved back to Johnstown, PA by the time this car came out, and the town was not exactly a hotbed of environmentalism. Rather, if you were anything resembling a Green, than the probably meant that you were an aging Hippie, with in this area was pretty synonymous with “Communist”.
While a definite step forward from the CitiCar, it still had a long way to go to reach the GM EV-1 level. And the pricing was completely divorced from reality, when you think of what $25,000.00 could buy back then for a set of wheels. At least there was a serious attempt at styling, even if the end result included some very questionable aesthetic decisions. At least it was more than stretching sheet plastic over the CitiCar’s roll cage.
Ironic to mention the hippie, commune type mentality since the Electrek actually looks like something an Iron Curtain country would come up with as a sports car. Hell, I could see the Electrek sporting a ‘Trabant’ emblem.
R.e. Panel gaps and alignments, “..this is likely an early model…”. Good one! With 50 to 100 total production, they are all “early models”.
Seriously, decades of severe daily and seasonal temperature cycling, in a place like Colorado, would likely warp fiberglass and polycarbonate panels out of all proportion to what they would have looked like when fresh.
If they fixed the odd looking doors this could definitely be the alternate universe 79 Tesla Model 3.
What a find! I only vaguely remember these; there were quite a few EVs built or proposed during this time, and of course so many conversions of existing cars. It was quite the little EV boomlet, but all were of course seriously compromised by the batteries, which not only lacked range, but invariably had to be replaced all too soon. Using the full range capacity repeatedly could mean a dying battery bank in as little as six months.
That is a heck of a find! A new one to me. Its a very interesting design. The gated shifter seems a little out of place in this little EV.
I forgot to add: It sure is shockingly ugly.
Your trespassing was entirely justified. I mean what a find! There was no way not to go and sneak a few quick pics, no harm done.
Though I must say, in certain parts of the US, I might think twice. Some folks do have shotguns. But having a shotgun AND a 40-year old EV?… Calculated risk. It paid off handsomely. By which I mean extremely ugly, but uniquely so.
Bravo, Mr Klein.
Thank you! In Tokyo, a pair of New Balance running shoes and lots of waving and smiling lets one play the idiot tourist card to good effect when necessary. In the rural parts east of me, waiting for the big trucks to finally be gone was the better part of valor, the subject wasn’t going anywhere…
The styling is odd. The front and rear have quite professional surface detailing and look OK. No worse than many production cars. The mid-section and greenhouse are just awful. Almost like one guy did the front and rear, and then their ten year old kid connected them.
Just curious. Is this the rarest low volume semi-production car ever on CC? This would have to exclude some of the special editions from exotic European makers. While I don’t care for the esthetics I do respect the makers attempt to take an unknown path.
Quite a find, I suspect.
Did it look any better before its back broke?
This car belongs to Craig Cambier. It was one of the test models thus the 7 segment displays on the dash. I also own on of these cars! You can check out more about them on my website uniquemobility.org
Sorry, it belongs to Steve Cambier, son of Craig Cambier
This is my car , and my house. Kinda freakin weird man. Pretty intrusive when you could’ve asked permission. Glad you enjoy the car but knock next time.