Tracing The Ancestry of Today’s Electric Vehicles (Part 3)

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This article is part of a short series on the history of electric vehicles. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The GM Sunraycer, and The Quiet Achiever

Wikipedia and most other sources will state that GM’s Impact (the EV1’s prototype) grew out of GM’s Sunraycer project. This is definitely true, but the Sunraycer is just one of Impact’s parents. Before we get to that other parent, let’s talk about the Sunraycer for a bit.

This car’s story starts with an adventurer named Hans Tholstrup. After being the first to circumnavigate Australia in a 16-foot open boat, ride a motorcycle around the planet, and other things, he turned his attention toward replacing fossil fuels for transportation. To prove solar driving out, he built the world’s first solar car: The Quiet Achiever. Larry and Garry Perkins, brothers who developed cars in Australia with help from BP built the vehicle, which resembled a boat with a flat sail on top.

In this vehicle, Hans drove across Australia, from Perth to Sydney, in 1982. Averaging about 15 MPH, this trip took him 20 days. With all of the media attention this trip got, the Perkins brothers and Tholstrup decided that it would be a good idea to organize a solar-powered rally in the future to continue promoting and developing clean transportation. They then planned the World Solar Challenge, and scheduled the first race in 1987.

When GM’s Australian division heard about this, they asked GM’s corporate headquarters if they could have some money to study whether the company could make a competitive solar car. Once they determined that it was not only feasible, but very possible for GM, headquarters gave them the green light and the funding to compete.

GM’s entry in the race, the Sunraycer, was built using the expertise of AeroVironment as well as Hughes Aircraft (then a subsidiary of GM). They started with a very lightweight frame, just 14 pounds. Within this frame was the electric motor, a silver-oxide battery pack, and mounts for the car’s body. The body was made of the lightest materials available at the time, arranged to provide a drag coefficient of just 0.125. The large, cockroach-shaped body was covered with 8800 solar cells that charged the battery and powered the vehicle.

By using the best available technologies of the day, GM’s team was able to not only win the race, but win it decisively. The vehicle was capable of a top speed of 68 MPH, and was capable of reaching 36 MPH on sun power alone (without the use of batteries). It raced from Darwin to Adelaide, averaging over 40 MPH. The trip took 5 days, and they arrived at the finish line two days before the second place car.

Using the best technologies of the day proved costly, though. They spent over $2 million, and that’s in 1987 dollars. It would be like spending almost $5 million today. Even the best solar, battery, and motor technology of the day wasn’t enough to make a viable solar car, but GM did figure out that building an electric car, charged by the grid, was a whole lot more feasible than they had previously thought.

The Sunmobile

The idea for Tholstrup and Perkins’ The Quiet Achiever solar car (which went on to inspire the Sunraycer) didn’t come from nowhere. They said they were inspired by an even earlier solar vehicle: GM’s Sunmobile. This solar car, a small-scale model that couldn’t carry a person, was on display at a GM car show in 1955.

It was just a balsa wood toy car, but with some solar panels on the roof and an electric motor to make it go when the sun hit it.

It may seem like a lame science project, but William Cobb thought it was a good way to show off early solar technology and inspire future inventors. It turns out that he was right.

The Pontiac Fiero

Let’s back up the family tree a bit to GM’s Impact car, the prototype that became the EV1. While the Impact was definitely influenced by the success of the Sunraycer and subsequent solar races, the Impact has another parent that most people don’t know about.

My experience with the EV1 is limited, unfortunately. I’ve never driven one, but I have spent quite a bit of time around the one that GM donated to New Mexico State University. It wasn’t operational, and today, after it became more popular, it sits in a university museum behind ropes. Around 2003–2005, though, it sat in the lobby of one of the engineering buildings and people were welcome to mess with it. I actually sat and did homework in the car a few times, because it was eerily similar to the Pontiac Fiero I drove, and I did a lot of homework in that car, too.

Eventually, I decided to see whether the commonalities were deep or superficial, and it turned out that they were very similar under the skin. Having put in a lot of wrenching time on Fieros, I noticed many similar things when I opened things up and looked under the vehicle.

The Fiero started as a gas-powered attempt at making a greener, cheaper-to-operate car. With a spaceframe, plastic and fiberglass body panels, a low profile, and relatively good aerodynamics, the early 4-cylinder Fieros could get 50 miles per gallon if they came with the 5-speed transmission and a tall final gear ratio. I never owned that particular configuration, but my V6 Fiero GTs often got over 30 MPG, which was still a respectable figure for the 1980s.

It was a cool idea, but GM destroyed the reputation of the car by making a few poor decisions. The main problem was that early 4-cylinder models required a modified oil pan to make the respectable “Iron Duke” engine fit into the car. With reduced oil capacity, there was no room for poor maintenance in the car. When owners neglected the car and drove it hard enough, the engine would throw a connecting rod right through the side of the block, throwing oil all over the car’s exhaust. Fire would quickly spread from the catalytic converter to the body, and the whole car would go up in flames.

With the poor reputation and GM’s inability to sell enough units to make it profitable, the vehicle was axed in 1988. The basic design formula continued on in GM’s new Saturn brand, and it seems obvious that GM’s engineers borrowed from the Fiero’s design heavily when they made the Impact.

They also weren’t the only people to experiment with electrifying the Fiero. Solar Electric Engineering produced at least a few modified Fieros with DC electric motors and enough battery for about 50 miles of range. They even put solar panels on the outside so that it could get some limited range. They called this car the Destiny 2000.

In Part 4, I’m going to close by showing how far we’ve come in just a few decades, and discuss the situation that led to all of this progress since the late 1980s.

Featured image: A beat up 1986 Fiero GT I drove in college.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1766 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba