- Written by webmin
Enduring Automotive History Myths, No. 467 and 467a: Electric cars, while popular around the dawn of the automotive age, were quickly abandoned when the invention of the electric self-starter prompted the widespread adoption of internal combustion. They have only been recently reconsidered as a viable means of transportation. Gasoline-electric hybrids were similarly abandoned after Dr. Porsche’s early prototype and only recently reconsidered.
If automotive history were solely comprised of production vehicles we could certainly buy into the above myths. But as we all know, it’s in the margins where some of the most fascinating stuff goes on. There certainly were dead periods for production electric and gas-electric hybrid vehicles and other alternate-propulsion vehicles over a number of decades of the 20th Century, but an almost endless litany of tinkerers and backyard engineers still messed around with cars not primarily powered by gasoline engines during that time. After all, speculation on the finite nature of gasoline as a fuel began as early as 1907, and if the Depression didn’t adequately drive home the lessons of scarcity, then fuel rationing during World War II did. It was the latter influence that led to a minor boom in homebuilt electric cars in the immediate post-war period and that specifically led Ray Russell to build his various wartime hydraulic-drive cars.
Against this background, then, it’s not too surprising that a bunch of high-level thinkers got together well before the first oil crisis of the 1970s to exchange ideas and display prototypes of vehicles designed to minimize dependence on petroleum products. As we saw from last year’s post on the Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development and on the following post on the McKee-built Sundancer, research into such cars extended back into the mid-1960s and earlier. What’s slightly surprising, however, is the fact that GM not only presented a pair of small cars at the event – one electric, the other designed for fuel efficiency – they had actually built the cars a few years prior, well before the general public much cared about such things.
Those two cars actually came from a somewhat larger initiative at GM that resulted in the four 511 and 512 Urban concept cars, all runners, as Tom McCahill demonstrated in the October 1969 issue of Mechanix Illustrated. The sole XP511 car, a three-wheeler, used an Opel 1.1L four-cylinder engine to push around its 1,300 pounds of weight. The three 512 cars, all four wheelers, used gasoline (XP512), electric (XP512E) and gasoline/electric hybrid (XP512H) drivetrains. Built in 1969 for Transpo ’72, none of the three directly influenced any production car, though it does appear that XP512H’s hybrid technology – possibly borrowing ideas from GM’s many years of building diesel hybrid powertrains for locomotives – did show up again in GM’s somewhat larger XP833, and GM’s research into electric and hybrid powertrains did result in a number of patents, filed from 1960 to 1971 (by no means a complete list; if anybody comes across any more, please add them in the comments):
3,223,908 – Electric Vehicle Control
3,323,032 – Electric Drive System
3,476,999 – Motor Power Supply System
3,477,002 – Electric Drive Motor Logic Control System
3,551,685 – Electric Vehicle Drive System
3,564,366 – Motor Control System for a Direct Current Traction Motor
3,564,369 – Motor Control System for a Direct Current Traction Motor
3,566,165 – Electric Vehicle Drive Motor
3,568,018 – Electric Drive and Brake Arrangement and Method
3,686,549 – Power Control System
What happened to these four experimentals, nobody seems to know. Presumably, GM held on to them over the years, but the GM Heritage Center hasn’t replied to our requests for more information about them.
UPDATE (18.April 2011): As Frank the Crank reminded us recently, AMC’s all-electric Amitron concept from about that same time period was very similar to the 512 cars.