Today's BMW i3 may be the first electric car available to the public in large quantities from the Bavarian brand, but it's certainly not BMW's first-ever electric vehicle.

Over the past four decades, BMW has built numerous concepts and prototypes to experiment with electric propulsion.

And it all started with a boxy orange model, the 1602e developed 43 years ago, in 1972.

MORE: BMW Celebrates 40 Years Of Electric Cars, From 1602 To i3 (Dec 2012)

While the i3 can be seen as a response to tightening global emissions standards and concerns over climate change, the 1602e was a response to the geopolitical issues of its own time.

While the 1973 OPEC oil embargo hadn't yet hit, continuing turmoil in the Middle East had already led to concern over the potential for shortages and disruptions in the supply of oil.

1972 BMW 1602e

1972 BMW 1602e

Based on the now-classic "02"-series sedan, the 1602e featured a bank of lead-acid batteries under its hood, and a 32-kilowatt (42 horsepower) electric motor.

The batteries were essentially the same type used to power the 12-volt electrical system of a typical internal combustion car. They were grouped together as (very large) cells into one pack.

RELATED: BMW: We've Been Making Electric Cars Since The 1972 Olympics (Mar 2012)

This arrangement yielded just 37 miles of range, with a weight penalty of around 770 pounds.

Only two examples of the 1602e were built, and they were both used at the 1972 Olympic Games in BMW's in hometown of Munich.

1972 BMW 1602e

1972 BMW 1602e

They were used to shuttle dignitaries, and to pace athletes in long-distance running events.

The advantage of that, BMW notes in the above video, is that runners didn't have to breath exhaust fumes while being paced by the cars.

That's an advantage shared by the Nissan Leaf when a prototype paced the world-famous New York City Marathon in November 2010, a month before the car went on sale to the public.

ALSO SEE: BMW To Provide 4,000 Cars For 2012 Olympics, Electric Cars Included (Jul 2011)

Forty years later, BMW electric cars also performed supported duties at the 2012 London Olympics.

In between, BMW built and tested several more electric prototypes--including the fleets of MINI E and Active E released to customers as test beds for the i3.

In other words, you could say the i3 was four decades in the making.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.