Experimenting with sustainable economic and consumption models. Governments fiddling with money supplies and currencies. Adapting to unpredictable swings in oil and commodities prices. Exchanging threats with our Russian neighbours. Watching senseless violence in the middle-east. Marvelling at far reaching advances in sciences and technology. Standing in awe at breathtaking sci-fi movies. Mixing brown and orange. Proudly supporting singers with outrageous make-up.
We already did all of that (and much more) in the seventies. What about electric cars? As a matter of fact, we did that too!
In 1974, in response to the on-going oil crisis, the late Robert Beaumont decided to launch the CitiCar – a truly minimalist electric commuter car powered by 6 to 8 lead-acid car batteries. A visionary entrepreneur, Beaumont dedicated his life and most of his wealth to building an affordable and practical electric vehicle for the US market.
The CitiCar is about as simple as a road-legal car from that era could possibly be. The accelerator pedal has just three positions, none of which are particularly speedy. The headlights dim on even the tamest of climbs. The motor has the same power as an average electric kettle. The body is entirely made of “impact resistant” ABS plastic. Forget about air-conditioning, air-bags, GPS and any other form of safety or luxury. Want to roll the windows down? Just take them off!
Despite its lack of features, approximately 4,400 CitiCars were sold in the US (including a postal service version) until 1979. Amazingly, it stayed the best-selling electric car in the US until the introduction of the Tesla Model S in 2012. The CitiCar fulfilled the need of urban commuters with a range of around 40km, a (somewhat optimistic) stated top speed of 61km/h, and the cosy dimensions of a modern Smart car.
By all accounts, the CitiCar, its creators, and its owners were far ahead of their time.
Amusingly, a browse through the FAQs section of the promotional brochure reveals how little public opinion regarding electric cars has changed in the past four decades. Beaumont addressed many of the common concerns – from whether electric cars are really more environmentally-friendly than conventional vehicles (they are, even given the dirtiest forms of electricity production) to concerns about range. It feels like Beaumont’s vision of personal transportation far surpassed the limits of the technology available at the time. Only now, forty years later, are electric vehicles seriously being considered by the public as a viable substitute to oil-burning ones. This is largely due to technological improvements in battery chemistry and lightweight materials, which have resulted in improved vehicle performance and increased range at more competitive prices.
It is reassuring that every now and again, visionary entrepreneurs have foolish ideas that should in all logic fail, yet do not. It only takes one such person to push technology to its next frontier. So, if you need a New Years’ resolution, don’t spend time developing yet another social media app. Focus instead on engineering something bold - something that no one has yet envisioned. Be 40 years ahead of your time, like Beaumont was.
(Written with my Dad who somehow survived the seventies)