If your historical knowledge of electric cars goes back to the first Tesla Roadster, the GM EV1 or, perhaps, one of the many intriguing manufacturer conversions from the 1980s or ‘90s, you have many decades of what-ifs to catch up on.
Case in point: There’s something far geekier and steeped in what could have been, in this electric vehicle conceived in the 1950s, the Packard Kilowatt. One went up for sale on Hemmings this past week, and as of Saturday evening Green Car Reports has verified with the owner that it’s still for sale.
While it looks like a great addition to a collection, or a truly different restoration project, we’d venture to say that, like dozens of EVs that almost were and then weren’t, its backstory is more interesting than the car itself.
What you’re seeing isn’t an electric-vehicle conversion of the rear-engine Renault Dauphine of that era—at least not quite. The Kilowatt borrows much, including body panels and cabin pieces, from the Dauphine and was built by a well-established coachwork company, Henney Motor Company of Canastota, New York.
Why would Henney, a high-end coachbuilder that had built presidential limousines, Army medic ambulances, and various other high-profit specialty vehicles like hearses produce a little electric vehicle? Because when Packard went out of business, in the mid-’50s, Henney had no chassis for the vehicles it had long made.
The Kilowatt project was masterminded by the National Union Electric Company, which included Emerson Radio and Exide Batteries. Its propulsion system was provided by the Illinois maker of Eureka vacuum cleaners [hmmm, Dyson], and the motor controller by Curtis Instruments.
If that’s not enough, the Kilowatt was formed by an all-star cast of science luminaries and hybrid and electric-car founding fathers, including Victor Wouk, who did early work in the development of hybrid vehicles long before Toyota took on the project. Some sources cite Linus Pauling as being involved in the Kilowatt.
Henney Kilowatt gauges [for sale on Hemmings]
The original 1959s went to public utilities, who were eager then (as now) to explore the potential in electric cars that could be charged at home. The 1960 models, which doubled their voltage from 36 to 72 volts, were intended for private sale, and originated from the bulk purchase of 100 Dauphine “gliders” (potentially supplied from either Mexico or France)
The Kilowatt could barely earn a profit in its original 36V guise, which left it with a top speed of just 40 mph. The 72V upgrade, with a new controller, effectively broke the bank, and the company wasn’t able to meet its cost targets for the $3,600 price, which equals about $31,000 in today’s money. [Ed note: Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen for 800V products today.]
Even in this zoomier consumer form, with its somewhat optimistic specs calling out a 60-mile range and 60-mph top speed—it may have been hard to see the point with the two-seat Kilowatt. With more than 1,000 pounds of 6V batteries added in back, the Kilowatt weighed about 2,100 pounds—in the vicinity of 700 pounds more than the gasoline Dauphine—and the stock braking system carried over from the Dauphine, National Union reportedly agreed with the parent company not to equip the Kilowatt with a back seat.
Henney Kilowatt switch panel [for sale on Hemmings]
Instead there’s a panel containing contactors and microswitches, covered with a piece of carpet about where the seat would be, and a system that allows you to change the operating voltage via microswitches (if you’re missing a cell or two, perhaps).
While the first 15 or so Kilowatts, produced for 1959, were conversions from complete Dauphines, the team behind the Kilowatt had ordered 100 “gliders” for production for 1960. When the project abruptly folded, 43 complete Kilowatts had been made. The rest of those incomplete cars sat, and in 1975 they sold 71 remaining Dauphines to become Mars II electric cars in Florida—another project that converted Dauphines.
The seller of this car, Perry McFarland, a retired field engineer in Illinois, where the car was conceived and built, has become something of an expert on the model, as he’s perused and collected more than 300 public memos and documents available locally. He says that the concept for the Kilowatt came from the power companies.
McFarland told Green Car Reports that he’s not a car guy or car collector but bought the Kilowatt a few years ago after hearing about its backstory from a friend. He’d owned a couple of ever-quirky Renault Dauphines back when they were new, so nostalgia may have played a part.
This particular Kilowatt is one of the first two of the 72V cars originally intended for private sale, McFarland says. The other one is in Germany.
The owner cautions that his car is not restored, and that it has some rust and dents. Although it runs (the first portion of the video below is of the car for sale), the owner has only ever had it out on farmland.
Silicon Valley Buckaroo Banzai types working on next-generation electromobility, this is your chance.