The electric car revolution of the 1990s – a Redline story

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If there’s one word that epitomises the future of the car industry, it’s ‘electric’.

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Honda’s latest electric car, the e.

Since the turn of the decade, the automotive world has gone into a frenzy over electrified cars, no matter whether they’re conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids or fully electric, with manufacturers across the globe pouring billions of dollars into developing them.

The tightening of emissions regulations and increasing societal concern for the environment have meant that any brand planning to stay afloat in the coming decades is either rapidly developing, or currently selling, an electrified vehicle.

However, if you delve into the depths of history, you’ll realise the electric car revolution is not a new thing. In fact, nearly 30 years ago, carmakers were in the same position they are today, scrambling to build electric cars to satisfy law-makers and customers alike.

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The Audi e-tron, an all-electric midsize SUV.

How did the first wave of electric cars come about, and why didn’t it succeed? Let’s explore.

The year is 1990. California is in the midst of a battle with air pollution, a severe issue that has plagued the state for nearly four decades. The organisation tasked with dealing with the smog is the California Air Resources Board (CARB), first established in 1967 by Governor Ronald Reagan.

In order to reduce the density of polluting cars on Californian roads, CARB introduced the Zero-Emission Vehicle program, intended to promote and hasten the adoption of zero-emission cars.

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California faced a major smog problem in 1990.

It laid down a bold ultimatum for manufacturers: if they wanted to keep selling cars in California, 2 per cent of their sales between 1998 and 2000 must be zero-emission, increasing to 5 per cent for 2001 and 10 per cent for 2003.

So, the carmakers got to work.

One of the first – and likely the most well-known – cars to emerge out of the new regulations was the General Motors EV1.

The quirky American coupe had its roots in the widely-praised Impact concept car, first shown at the 1990 Los Angeles motor show.

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The GM Impulse concept from the 1990 LA motor show.

The ‘Gen I’ EV1 launched in 1996, available only for lease – priced at USD$33,995 in 1996 dollars, or AUD$81,765 today – at a handful of Saturn dealerships in California, Arizona and Georgia.

Battery power came not from a large lithium-ion pack like modern electric cars, but an archaic 16.5kWh lead-acid setup that delivered a range of 97-113km (60-70 miles) on a single charge. Mounted on the front axle was a 102kW/149Nm electric motor, driving the wheels though a single-speed reduction gear.

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1996 Gen 1 EV1.

The EV1 was revolutionary in its construction, being one of the first vehicles to employ aluminium in its frame.

Body panels were made from plastic – reducing weight and increasing dent resistance – while magnesium alloy wheels, low rolling resistance Michelin tyres and an aerodynamic body all contributed to the lowest drag coefficient of any production car, at 0.19Cd.

The ‘Gen II’ model debuted in 1999, with an 18.7kWh lead-acid battery delivering 161km of range. A 26.4kWh nickel-metal-hydride pack – the same type used by the best-selling hybrid Toyota Prius – was made available in the following years, with an impressive claimed range of 257km.

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1996 Gen 1 EV1.

The EV1 wasn’t the only electric car introduced to comply with the new regulations. Ford and Chevrolet both sold electric variants of their Ranger and S-10 small trucks, Honda imported a small hatch from Japan known as the EV Plus, Toyota marketed an all-electric RAV4 and Nissan introduced the Altra wagon, the first production car with a lithium-ion battery.

It appeared that the electric revolution was in full swing, with manufacturers developing new models to satisfy CARB’s targets.

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Honda’s EV Plus, imported to the US from the Japanese market.

However, by 1999, things began to fall apart. Following immense pressure from carmakers – including a multi-million-dollar lawsuit in the US federal court – CARB was forced to drop the ZEV targets set nearly a decade earlier, which by that point had been revised and slimmed down to a single target of 10 per cent zero-emission sales by 2003.

GM pulled the plug on production of its compact electric car in December 1999, with a total of 1,117 produced. The American brand reclaimed all EV1s in 2003 – despite desperate pleas and hefty checks sent in by passionate owners – and shipped them to the desert to be crushed.

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Crushed EV1s sitting in the desert junkyard (source: EV1.org)

Around 40 EV1s were spared from the junkyard, with their drivetrains removed for use in museums – only one remains with its original powertrain intact, a grey example located in the Smithsonian museum.

Now we arrive at the modern day. After a decade of little interest in electric vehicles, carmakers have waged their futures on consumers adopting plug-in cars. Market leader Tesla – producers of the Model S/3 sedans and Model X/Y SUVs – even credits the EV1’s heartbreaking death as a catalyst for the company’s establishment back in 2003.

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Tesla’s latest EV, the mass-market Model 3 sedan.

The steady decrease in battery prices and exponential increase in consumer awareness means that this electric revolution isn’t going away any time soon. Nice try, big oil.

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