Electric cars such as the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf are all the rage these days. These sexy cars offer zero emissions, good fuel economy, and near-silent operation. But there was a time not long ago when electric vehicles were not sexy or cool.
Early electric vehicles were converted from gasoline-powered vehicles using primitive chargers and batteries. They were a novelty item, mostly reserved for hippies and fringe-thinkers. They lacked the mass-market appeal of today’s sophisticated alt-fuel vehicles. Let’s revisit those times for a moment to take a look at once such vehicle: the Electravan.
The year was 1975. Gerald Ford was in the White House, disco music was topping the charts, and the supersonic Concorde was only a year away from making its first commercial flight.In response to gasoline shortages, Congress passed legislation that offered government loans to people working on researching and building electric vehicles. William L. Bales and A. Forbes Crawford founded Jet Industries in Austin, Texas. They had worked together in the 1960s on building small, fuel-efficient trucks and by the late 1960s had an electric version that had a 50 mile range and a 30mph top speed.
Their goal was to make a new car with a 100 mile range and a 50mph top speed. They decided to use the Subaru Sambar, a micro-van from Japan as the basis for their conversions. Originally equipped with a 360cc engine, the vehicle was small, inexpensive, and lightweight – making it the perfect candidate for an electric conversion.
Jet Industries replaced the gas engine with a 20HP General Electric DC motor coupled to a 4-speed manual transaxle. They removed the back seat and replaced it with a bank of 96-volt golf cart batteries. An onboard charger from Lester Electrical of Lincoln, Nebraska allowed the vehicle to be recharged at home. There was a tiny diesel engine onboard to power the heater.
There is no clear number as to how many of these vehicles were made. The company was founded in 1975 and produced the Electravan from about 1978 to 1981. They also did numerous other electric vehicle conversions using compact cars as donors. While it is primitive by today’s standards, it is important to recognize vehicles such as the Electravan as pioneers of the EV world for helping to get us where we are today.