Looking back at the 1979 Chrysler ETV-1 electric car

Cars and gasoline are inextricably intertwined. Ferdinand Porsche’s first car was electric – the 1898 Egger-Lohner electric vehicle, C.2 Phaeton or P1 for short. That car was electric not because the 22 year old Dr. Porsche was a proponent of electric power but because gasoline was unknown in most parts of the world at the time.

Roll forward 80 years and you will come to a bleak time for the automobile. Twice in the 1970’s, the OPEC countries turned off the oil spigot and sent gas prices soaring. Long lines formed at the gas pumps. It was common to see gas stations closed altogether with signs reading “No Gas” hanging on the pumps.

In response, the US Department of Energy urged car makers to come up with an electric car that cost less than $5,000 (about $25,000 at today’s prices). They wanted it to go from 0 to 30 mph in 9 seconds with a top speed of 65 mph and a driving range of 70 to 100 miles.

Chrysler thought it had the perfect platform for the project, the ubiquitous K Car that ultimately saved the company from bankruptcy. Working with the General Electric Research and Development Center, it yanked out the gasoline engine and replaced it with an electric motor. A T-shaped bank of 18 lead acid batteries provided the power and could be recharged in just 10 hours from an ordinary 110 volt outlet. The car was called the 1979 Chrysler ETV-1 and it met all of the DOE targets.

What happened next provides a clue to the electric car revolution going on today. Gas prices tumbled, just as they did at the end of 2014. The ETV-1, with its leisurely acceleration, was quickly forgotten about as Americans reignited their love affair with cubic inches and big, thirsty cars. By the end of the 20th century, the average car weighed 50% more than those small, relatively efficient cars of the 70’s.

Despite its low tech nature, the ETV-1 is clearly a cousin of today’s electric cars, many of which have T shaped battery packs and need 8-10 hours to recharge. Electronic battery managements systems and lithium ion technology have transformed electric cars from plodding transportation modules to land based rocket ships that can blast their way to 60 mph in a tick over 3 seconds. But they all can trace their lineage back to the lowly ETV-1.

Whatever happened to this bit of automotive history? It wound up on eBay in January, 2014 and was sold for a paltry $3,554. It needs a complete (and expensive) restoration after languishing in a barn for many years. Chances are it will never see the light of day again.

With gas prices again hovering near historic lows, public ardor for electric cars seems to have cooled lately. Were it not for government mandates and incentives in most countries, interest in electric cars might disappear entirely – at least until the next gas crisis hits.