Before Tesla, there was the GM EV1 Electric Vehicle

Author: Kevin Stillerman

Electric Vehicle Content Writer

The GM EV1 was the first mass produced electric car of the modern era from a major automaker. It was produced and leased by General Motors.

GM EV1 Electric Vehicle

The GM EV1 might just be the most important electric vehicle in EV history, yet most people have never even heard of it. Produced and leased by General Motors from 1996 to 1999 it was the first mass-produced electric vehicle of the modern era from a major automaker. Sure, there were electric vehicles dating back as early as the 1800’s, but these “EVs” are nothing like what we think of when we think of an EV today. Essentially they were electric motors strapped to the side of a wagon that were highly unreliable, and you were lucky to get a few miles of range out of them.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that a company decided to take a chance on a mass-produced electric car. That company was General Motors,  who decided to bring a vehicle to the market that was purely powered by electricity, named the GM EV1. From a timeline perspective this was nearly 25 year before we saw GM Unveils ‘Factory Zero’ to Manufacture HUMMER EV and More. The EV1 has an interesting story, most notably captured in the  2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?”.

EV1 Production

Headed by GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicles (ATV) group, General Motors produced 1,117 GM EV1 cars over a 4 year timeframe from 1996 to 1999. GM decided to mass-produce an electric vehicle after they received positive feedback from their 1990 Impact electric concept car, upon which the design of the EV1 drew heavily. There were 660 Gen I units produced followed by 457 Gen II units. The GM EV1 was available in silver and red color options.

Unlike nearly all mass-produced vehicles, the EV1 was only made available through limited lease agreements and was also only available in select cities. The initial launch was in Los Angeles, California and Tucson, Arizona. This was followed by later launches in San Francisco and Sacramento, California, and even a limited launch in the state of Georgia.

The cars were not available for sale, and service was limited to select Saturn dealerships. The EV1 was released as a “real-world engineering evaluation” for GM to gather valuable user experience data on electric vehicles and the market’s willingness to accept them as a true transportation option.

EV1 Product Specs and Features

Compared to current EVs on the market, the GM EV1 does not stack up well in terms of performance. But considering the fact that GM1 was essentially a high volume prototype car that was breaking ground in unchartered territory, it was certainly ahead of it’s time. 

The GM EV1 was a 2-door sub-compact coupe with a transverse front motor and front wheel drive. It was powered by a single 3-phase alternating current induction motor with a IGBT power inverter. This combination produced 137 bph (102kW) at 7,000 rpm and 110 ft-lb (149 Nm) of torque. The transmission included a single-speed reduction integrated with a motor and differential and stored 16.5 – 18.7 kWh of energy on-board with lead-acid batteries.

Photo By: David Kimble

This provided 55 miles of range (89 kilometers). Later version of the car were capable of storing 26.4 kWh of energy by upgrading to Nickle Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries which increased the vehicles range to 105 miles (169 kilometers). These estimated ranges are revised based on the 2019 EPA procedures. The batteries were charged with a 6.6 kW Magne Charge inductive converter.

The GM EV1 had an overall length of 169.7 in (4,310 mm), width of 69.5 in (1,770 mm), and height 50.5 in (1,280 mm). The early production vehicles weighed 3,086 lb (1,400 kg) due to the heavy lead-acid batteries. The weight was later reduced to 2,908 lb (1,319 kg) when the NiMH batteries were introduced. 

The Fall of the GM EV1

While the GM EV1 was generally well received by consumers, GM ultimately ended up discontinuing the car in 2002 because they decided that electric cars occupied an unprofitable niche of the automobile market. All 1,117 GM EV1’s were taken off the road as lessees were required to return their vehicles without the option to purchase them from GM. This was all backed by the original terms of the lease which cited parts, service, and liability regulations.

The vast majority of these returned cars were crushed, while approximately 40 were delivered to educational institutes and museums. The only known intact GM EV1 was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The EV1 notably appeared on a 2016 episode of the TV show Jay Leno’s Garage as part of the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s collection. It is no surprise that the GM EV1 is one of the rarest cars from the 1990’s.

Summary

While the GM EV1’s lifespan was short lived, it’s impact to the electric vehicle revolution will likely withstand the test of time. Although it may have been ahead of it’s time, this historical electric car proved that not only was electricity a possible power source for mass produced vehicles, but that there was a large amount of interest and excitement for such a product. The concept was proven, but with low performance and high cost, the battery technology just wasn’t ready for prime time yet. In addition the charging infrastructure was non-existent.

It is not impossible to think that the GM EV1 helped to provide direction and confidence in the early stages of Tesla as they developed the original Tesla Roadster. With improved Lithium-Ion battery technology and a business plan roll-out to develop the necessary charging infrastructure as they produced the vehicles, Tesla gained traction with their high end all electric car. The rest is history (in the making)!

What do you think about the GM EV1? Will it go down in history as the start of the EV revolution (over Tesla)? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!

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