Chevy Volt? Old News! CleanAir Electric Car Did It 20 Years Ago

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CleanAir LA301 range-extended electric car, October 91 issue of CAR magazine

CleanAir LA301 range-extended electric car, October 91 issue of CAR magazine

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What car can be charged up via a plug, then offers an all-electric range of around 40 miles, before a range-extending generator kicks in to supply power and top up the batteries?

If you answered "Chevrolet Volt", then you'd be correct--but the Volt certainly isn't the first car to tout these statistics.

Back in 1991, another car was under development, and its concept is strikingly similar to GM's offering of today. That car was known as the CleanAir LA301, designed in response to the choking smog of early-90s Los Angeles.

If you've never heard of it before then that's indicative of it being another of the "lost" EVs, a car that simply fizzled away like so many electric startups before and since.

We discovered it in an October 1991 issue of CAR Magazine. A small three-door hatchback, the LA301 offered an all-electric range of 40 miles, before a small gasoline engine--the article states a "Japanese micro-car engine", so we're guessing only 660cc--kicked in to supply another hundred or so miles of range.

Many of those miles would still be electric, as the engine was designed to only kick in to top up the batteries. And unlike the Volt, which can drive the wheels directly from the gasoline engine in extreme circumstances, the LA301's generator had no direct connection to the wheels.

CleanAir LA301 range-extended electric car, October 91 issue of CAR magazine

CleanAir LA301 range-extended electric car, October 91 issue of CAR magazine

Enlarge Photo

How efficiently it all worked isn't entirely clear, as the article suggests an average of only 50 mpg over a journey of 100 miles, and that includes the 40 miles of electric range.

Nor was it particularly quick, at least by today's standards. The 57-horsepower electric motor meant a limited top speed of 70 mph, and 0-50 mph acceleration in an unimpressive 17 seconds. The car used a two-speed gearbox to deliver the power, switching automatically between the two ratios once underway.

Even back then though, CleanAir understood that many drivers would cover the majority of their driving in the 40-miles of electric range. Research suggested that 90 percent of drivers in the LA basin covered fewer than 40 miles per day.

Even back in the early 1990s, the company suggested that a $15,300 lead-acid battery replacement every four years (!) would be required. Inflation-adjusted, that's $25,000...

Sadly, and perhaps due to some of its more glaring shortcomings, it never hit sales volumes of 1,000 in 1993 nor 3,000 in 1994, nor did it even go into series production.

It is now but a curio from the history books, but its spirit still lives on--in the 2012 Chevrolet Volt.


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Comments (13)
  1. I can top that Antony...In 1982 at the NEC Motor show in the UK Lucas displayed an extended range EV. This car was developed between Reliant (of three wheeler fame) and Lucas (car electrics) and designed by Ogle(stylist of reliant robin and Scimitar).Electric only mode was 40 miles when the 848cc Alloy engine ( same as in the Robin) would kick in driving an alternator producing 25kw.This car was a five door family hatchback,aerodynamic and of composite material of which Reliant had much experience.There were eighteen lead batteries so its just as well the construction was light wt.The power pack was low mounted under the passengers and oddly it had front engine and rear drive.

  2. @Don: Was it ... THIS ONE, perhaps? :)

  3. That's it John before I was a follower of this site.I saw the car in 82 but belatedly contacted the seller post sale to find it did sell.
    Linking to this and on to Daihatsu hybrid, I wasn't aware of the connection between them and Toyota two decades ago. I knew there was a connection recently with Daihatsu supplying three cyl engine technology for small Toyota models but...that far back??

  4. John check this out..
    Its how uneducated morons treat heritage items.

  5. Funny you mention that Don, had already spotted it. Keep your eyes peeled here ;)

  6. They had it in a Top Gear episode with a much younger Clarkson. I can't find it right now, but I think it was on YouTube

  7. Suppose he made fun of it.

  8. John - You're right, they did, but unfortunately I couldn't find the video when I searched for it. Perhaps it was taken down.

  9. Internal Combustion engines are over 100 year old technology. But today's engine are far better. Same thing apply to electric motors, batteries and transmission.

    Trains, Submarine, aircraft carriers have been "series" hybrid or EVREV for decades as well..

  10. In Bob Lutz's book, he really makes it sound like the EREV concept was a new idea that they developed at GM while he was there. That is clearly not the case.

  11. The Volt concept has been around for decades in many other things (trains, mining trucks, submarine, Aircraft carrier...etc). But GM is the First CAR company to attempt "mass produce" the EREV...

  12. 100 years ago, the concept of loading a generator into the back of electric trucks to get them home if they ran out of juice was already a no-brainer. The ideas we use today have been around a very long time but the execution, technology, the will to do it and improve it are newly invigorated. Indoor plumbing isn't new either. Pompei had it and we just use more modern methods. The basic Volt idea is old, but Volt is not just a BEV with a backup generator. A BEV with a backup generator is a workable solution, so maybe the extra complexity of a Volt isn't needed. But it widens the utility of use... the car can go as fast as 100 MPH even when the battery is depleted. I'm not seeing any other cars that can do that to date.

  13. Like all great ideas it's 1% inspiration, 99% hard work, and in the case of the erev it's easy to see why it took a huge company to pull it off... Just look at all the volt haters posting made up facts and angry bs on everything from fox news to oneman blogs on the the Internet!

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