- Written by webmin
Of the many unusual and innovative vehicles on display at the first Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development in 1973 in Ann Arbor, Michigan,it appeared that just three were functional enough to provide rides around the parking lot for the besuited attendees. While two of those three came from General Motors, the third, the Exide Battery Sundancer, came from a former race wrench who built some of the most powerful American cars to compete in professional racing and had by then already been profiled in the February 1972 issue of Mechanix Illustrated.
Though the article states that Bob McKee’s Sundancer (here called the McKee Mark 16 Electric Commuter) came about when the business of building endurance race cars – including the Howmet TX and the Hemi McKee – began to dry up in the late 1960s, McKee said he was actually rather busy at the time. Instead, the idea for the Sundancer came directly from Exide executives, who called up McKee in about 1968 and asked him to build them an electric car, presumably to allow Exide to sell more batteries. Building on his race car fabrication experience, McKee hit upon the idea of using a backbone chassis in an electric car not only for strength and simplicity, but also as a place to store the heavy battery pack. As McKee argued in his 1972 patent application for the design of the car (3,983,952), the backbone design results in a low center of gravity as well as a low profile for reduced wind resistance, the latter important for extending the range of the car. And by loading the batteries onto a slide-out tray, maintenance is made simple and drained batteries can then be easily swapped out for freshly charged batteries.
As for the car itself, McKee applied for a design patent (D224,649) on the shape of the car in 1970, simplifying it and reducing its weight by eliminating the doors and going with a two-piece fiberglass body designed by Michael Williams. The chassis uses four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and a steering wheel that swings out of the way to facilitate getting in and out of the car. According to the MI article, the 72hp 8hp electric motor came from Tork-Link in Culver City, California, and drove the wheels through a belt-and-pulley system with an infinite array of gear ratios, similar to DAF’s CVT. (The belt-and-pulley system was only used on one of the three cars McKee built; the other two used a conventional two-speed transmission.) The McKee was good for a 100-mile range at 30 MPH and a 62 MPH top speed. McCahill deemed it the world’s first practical electric car, though, in his old age, he must’ve forgotten the Baker Electric, Detroit Electric, and the host of other electric cars that once provided everyday transportation.
McKee said he built three Sundancers, two for Exide and one for himself – the car featured in the Mechanix Illustrated article above. Exide took the cars up to Chrysler and let the Chrysler engineering staff crawl all over them, but with gas so cheap then, neither Chrysler nor any other major manufacturer showed any serious interest in the car. Ray Caldwell of Autodynamics did purchase one of the Sundancers with intentions to produce the car, but nothing ever came of that. McKee said one of the cars ended up being donated to Princeton, and he believes one still exists in Florida.
McKee Engineering ended up building about 20 different electric cars over the years, including the backbone-chassis 1978 Endura, built for Globe-Union Battery, and an electric Hyundai Sonata. In the early 1990s, he even worked with Chrysler on developing an electric minivan, work which placed his name on a couple more patents. Though he’s no longer involved in building electric cars today, McKee said he keeps busy at his Chicagoland shop building hot rods and restoring his old race cars.