Nissan Leaf's Great-Grandfather: The Tama EV

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You might think high gasoline prices are a problem now, but at least it's relatively easy to get hold of.

The same couldn't be said in Japan after the end of World War II, when the country's gasoline supplies were limited under Allied occupation.

Transport was still vital, which led Nissan and Prince Motor, formerly aircraft builders Tachikawa Airplane, to build the Tama EV.

The Tama EV stretches Nissan's electric vehicle history way past the first Leaf prototypes and the current 2013 Nissan Leaf--and it's fascinating to see some of the innovations introduced on the car, at a time when automobile production was in its relative infancy in Japan.

An upright body style is typical of the era and a world away from the organic shape of today's Leaf, but the Tama features plenty of quirks to draw the eye. The first is a rounded hood not unlike that seen on some American vehicles, and inspired by aviation.

Unlike many other vehicles from the era though, the hood is hinged at the rear, rather than opening each side. Nissan restoration team member Masahiko Isobe says people found it ugly at the time, yet today virtually every car's hood opens in this manner.

The flat windshield reduced costs, while the car's turn signals also amuse. Known variously as trafficators and semaphores, on the Tama they were named for the company that made them--Apollo. During operation the lit trafficator would pop out from the side of the vehicle, indicating the intended direction to cars in front and behind.

Like many vehicles of the era, the Tama EV uses a wood frame with steel panels attached to the outside. Some parts proved difficult to source during Nissan's restoration of the car, with the headlight lenses among only ten in Japan, and the tires shipped over from an English company specializing in vintage tire types.

Motive power is by a direct current electric motor, and uses a resistor unit to control the car's speed. Excess energy is immediately turned to heat--so the Tama uses a radiator system to prevent excess temperatures.

The Tama was also created for a country with excess electricity to spare. At the time, electricity use in the home was low, yet electric and hydro-electric powerplants located throughout Japan had plenty of capacity--so it made sense to use some of that capacity in transport.

It could be argued that, like the Tama EV, today's electric vehicles are products of necessity--in the 1940s, through lack of gasoline and today, through environmental pressures and rising gas prices.

But it's always interesting to see the products of a time when the requirements for an electric car were even more immediate.


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