My Car Quest

May 23, 2022

GM Could Have Been The World Leader In Electric Car Technology

The 1966 GM Electrovair II Electric Car could have led GM to world leadership in electric vehicles today, instead…

by Mike Gulett

I know in 1966 no one was really thinking seriously about electric cars but yet General Motors designed and built this prototype Corvair called the Electrovair II. Read what I know about this electric car below and see photos from 10 years ago.

About 30 years later GM developed the EV1 electric car. The EV1 was leased to customers by General Motors from 1996 to 1999 and was the first ever manufactured EV and purpose-designed EV of the modern era from a major automaker and the first GM car designed to be an electric vehicle.

Other large companies in the mid-20th century, like IBM and AT&T, had R&D departments that worked on new technology that may not have had an immediate known need or market, yet the development was funded because one never knows where new ideas and discoveries will lead and the management of those companies had the vision to know that.

With thinking like this AT&T Bell Labs invented the transistor and the IBM labs invented the magnetic memory hard drive both of which had a huge impact on the world and the financial success of AT&T and IBM. Both companies had many other important inventions these are the two that come first to my mind.

1966 GM Electrovair II Electric Car

In 1966 General Motors experimented with an electric car based on the 1966 Corvair called the Electrovair II. It was powered by a silver zinc battery pack located in the front and the rear producing 532 volts.

Silver zinc was chosen because it delivered high peak power but the batteries wore out after 100 recharges and were expensive. The batteries powered a 115 horsepower AC-Induction motor that produced about the same performance as a gas powered Corvair except that the range was only 40-80 miles. The top speed was 80 MPH.

The Electrovair II weighed 800 pounds more than a regular Corvair and there were gauges on the dashboard for monitoring volts and amps. This was just an experiment but one has to wonder where would they be if GM had continued developing electric car technology since 1966?

With the advanced electric cars that Tesla [1] has developed from scratch – imagine what GM could have done if they would have funded this development and stuck with it since 1966.

The result today is that GM is far behind Tesla in the revolutionary transition to electric vehicles. So far behind that Tesla’s market value today is about 13 times that of GM and if they wanted to Tesla could buy GM without breaking a sweat and even more interesting is that Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s net worth is significantly larger than the market value of GM and if he really wanted to he could buy GM himself as an individual. I do not think either is likely I am just pointing out the value created when a company pioneers a new market and takes a commanding lead in that new fast growing market. The electric vehicle market is a once in a century opportunity. Why did GM stop working on electric cars too soon?

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car interior

GM Electrovair II Electric Car logo

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

GM Electrovair II Electric Car

These photos were taken at the Marin Sonoma Councours d’Elegance on May 15, 2011 by Michael Menetto. A version of this article was originally published in June 2011.

[1] The author owns shares in Tesla.

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GM Could Have Been The World Leader In Electric Car Technology
Article Name
GM Could Have Been The World Leader In Electric Car Technology
Description
The 1966 GM Electrovair II was just an experiment but one has to wonder where would they be if GM had continued developing electric car technology since 1966?
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Comments

  1. Grifo4me says

    My family had a Corvair growing up and that front trunk was massive, it needed a bit of weight up there too, so this is a good candidate for a EV. I bet it could travel farther than a modern GM volt. Lets see the Corvair turbine car.

  2. BigGar,

    You received only part of this article because it is a Premium Article and apparently you have not signed up for the My Car Quest Membership.

    It is a very interesting article that can be read by all My Car Quest Members who pay only $2.99 per month for full access to all of the Premium Articles (not $3 per month).

    Non-Members have free access to non-Premium Articles.

  3. David,
    I do not know what you mean – send me an email at:
    michael.gulett@gmail.com

  4. georgeg20 says

    Perhaps as a big business, GM did not feel comfortable stepping on another big business – the oil companies. Just a thought…

    • But the oil companies are much much bigger than the car companies.

      The US car companies have almost gone under at a time when the oil companies are setting all time record profits for any company in any industry.

      Seems to me the car companies lost sight of their purpose.

      • georgeg20 says

        I’m thinking about back then… Perhaps it was not a “voluntary” decision to cease research on electric powered cars. BTW, GM came back some 20 years later with an EV1 that, although much more successful than the Electrovair, met the same fate.

      • Shareholder prices and market valuations driving business decisions vs long term vision and future positioning. Kind of goes hand in hand with the rise of our National Debt and Great Society (socialism) trends over the last 50+ years.

        • Josh,

          “Shareholder prices and market valuations driving business decisions vs long term vision and future positioning.” is part of the definition of capitalism and is not socialism.

          Under socialism an individual as rich as Musk would not happen.

    • oldevguy says

      As a long time EV owner I have always felt that the American auto makers didn’t want to lose all that revenue they get from servicing ICE cars. About all service an EV needs is tire rotation and fluid levels checked once a year for the first 5-8 years depending on milage per year. JMHO, Dave

  5. Steve Withers says

    GM don’t really innovate. Not the guys at the top. Maybe some engineers had some fun with this project….but at GM it never had a future. Much like the EV1 in the 1990s. They did it to pay lip service to California’s zero emissions regs while at the same time moving heaven and earth to get those regs overturned. Once that was done…….no more EV1.

    GM is your “Me, too” car maker.

    Tesla is showing what a company with vision can do…..and to some extent, so is Nissan with the LEAF. They were selling a pure EV 5 years ago.

  6. Glenn Krasner says

    This debate has been going on a long time. Pope-Waverly and Baker were American electric cars from 120 years ago. After the 1973-1974 Energy Crisis/Oil Embargo, I saw converted electric cars at every New York Auto Show I ever attended up through the 1980s. Regarding GM and electric vehicles, “if” is a great question.
    Glenn in Brooklyn, NY.

  7. Having driven an EV1 back in the day it was a very sophisticated little car, fun, fast, but spooky quiet… a few years ago I spoke with one of the engineers at GM regarding electric cars and he effectively explained to me that everything they did and all of the research of the EV1 was basically thrown out when developing the VOLT which was starting from a clean sheet of paper… Don’t know if that is completely true or not…
    In light of battery cost and construction cost not to mention the sources of lithium and nickle for the batteries, we need to see more research into alternative battery construction and what it will take to shore up our power grids and alternatives to producing electricity for the onslaught of potentially coming electric cars. Much research and thought has gone into producing safe nuclear power that could generate clean electricity for our electric cars, wonder if the public will ever embrace this technology.. Don’t get me wrong, I like the notion of electric cars, but would like to see the infrastructure for them improved and the prices come down. and while we are on the subject Tesla has proven that they don’t have to be unattractive to highlight that they are electric.
    Buy an electric car because they are neat fast and fun, not because you think your saving the planet…

  8. Having owned a Corvair Corsa 140 HP which was a rocket, I was interested in the article. The big 3 were mired in impotence when it came to innovation. In the mid-80’s as cellular technology was beginning to spread, I had a meeting with some Ford bigwigs in Dearborn who were interested in adding cellular technology into their cars on the assembly line, rather than as an aftermarket product, since they were missing out on an explosive market. After presentation and discussion for about an hour, it came down to making a decision. There was one Japanese individual at the conference table who was more than excited about incorporating cellular phones during the manufacturing process and was proclaiming “We should do it, we REALLY should do it.” The rest of the “American” executives around the table were saying “Well, we should study it more…” or “Maybe we should hire a consultant” or “We should probably do some focus groups on this…” They never did act on it, and Ford missed a huge revenue opportunity, both on the equipment side, and then as a carrier agent nationally. I left the meeting shaking my head thinking “No wonder they build lousy cars and the Japanese are taking chunks of their market share. Not surprising, just disappointing in how they are largely incapable of being a market leader and innovator.

  9. wallace wyss says

    I am trying to watch You Tube videos to figure out Musk’s magic and so far I know there’s something about meetings that he does different than Detroit. He allows even the most junior member– the guy hired yesterday– to come and pipe up with his ideas regardless of rank. Then too he allows anyone to leave the meeting at any time –no excuses needed. Neither was the way it was when I was in Detroit but you gotta admit his disruption of The Rules of Business are producing results.

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