Ask most people how long electric cars have been driving on the roads of the U.S. and they might give you an answer of a few years. If they’ve seen Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed The Electric Car, or knows someone in the know, they may give you the real answer: about as long as gasoline cars.
But while it’s easy to remember the very early electric cars from the 19th century, or the famous EV1 from General Motors from the late 1990s, it’s easy to forget the electric cars and the people who made them in-between.
Now it’s time to remember one such person: Bob Beaumont, creator of the 1970s CitiCar, who died peacefully on Monday 24th October.
As folklore would have it, Beaumont was pumping gas one day at his Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in upstate New York when he had an epiphany, namely that there had to be a better alternative to gasoline.
“I thought, There’s got to be a better way than to pump this stuff out of the ground and piss it away in gas tanks,” Beaumont told a Baltimore newspaper in 2008. And that solution, he realized, lay with electric vehicles.
1980 Comuta-Car. Photo by Chad Conway
1980 Comuta-Car. Photo by Chad Conway
His search led him to join a project in Detroit selling converted Renault cars, and then to Georgia, where he asked a golf-cart company to modify a few of its electric golf-carts to a design he had penned.
The resulting road-legal vehicle eventually impressed an investor, enabling Beaumont to set up his own electric car factory, producing what became known as the Sebring Vanguard CitiCar.
The original CitiCar may have only had a 1.8 kilowatt motor and a 36-volt lead-acid battery pack, but its launch date of 1974 coincided perfectly with the tail end of the 1970s oil crisis.
Spurred on by interest from drivers wanting a non oil-based solution for their transport needs, Beaumont and his team continued to refine and rework the design. By the end of production in 1977, the CitiCar had evolved through three major revisions, and had gained a more powerful 4.4 kilowatt motor and a larger 48-volt battery pack.
Top speed ranged from between 30 and 50 miles-per hour, with range around 40 miles per charge for later models. Earlier models managed much less.
The slow speed, and golf-cart origins made the CitiCar the G-Wiz or neighborhood electric vehicle of its day, gaining the negative attention of many newspapers. In fact, Consumer Reports called it “The nosiest vehicle we have tested this year,” adding that it was “Foolhardy to drive... on any public road”.
Nevertheless, In1979, Commuter Vehicles purchased the design of the CitiCar, and brought the vehicle back into production as the slightly modified 1979-1982 Comuta-Car and Comuta-Van.
Sold exclusively to the U.S. postal service, the Comuta-Vans were produced as right-hand drive vehicles so postal workers could deliver mail without leaving their vehicle.
In total, around 4,440 electric vehicles were made on Beaumont's original designs. Interestingly, that makes his car the highest-selling road-legal post-war, U.S.-made electric car to date.
Despite its strange, wedge-shaped looks, poor performance and questionable road handling, the CitiCar and Comuta-Car still commands a great fan-base.
One such fan is Chad Conway. During his final years of high school, Conway rebuilt a 1980s Comuta-Car, becoming so interested in electric vehicles that he decided to become an electric car engineer. These days, Conway is an engineering intern at none other than Tesla Motors.
“Bob Beaumont was a pioneer that awakened spark of electric vehicles in people throughout the world,” wrote Conway in an email to us. “His forethought is the reason I am involved in electric cars. He wanted to give people an easy cheap way of getting around town without burning oil. Throughout his life he has offered guidance to Comuta-Car owners throughout the world for free on online forums. He will be sincerely missed and we must all work hard to share our knowledge about EV's to others in his honor.”
Our sympathies go to Bob Beaumont’s family and friends at this sad time, but perhaps the best tribute is this YouTube video of CitiCar enthusiasts making a pilgramage to Bob Beaumont's house two years ago.