The Volkswagen ID. Buzz is the German carmaker’s first mass-produced all-electric minivan, and it’s a pretty cool, modern nod to VW’s first-ever van–the iconic Type 2 Microbus, also known as the T1.

It’s boxy, it’s cute, and it has none of the nasty emissions that you can almost smell just by thinking about a post-war vehicle. But what if I told you that the ID. Buzz isn’t actually Volkswagen’s first electric van and the German auto giant even tried its hand at battery-swapping tech half a century ago?

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Battery swapping in EVs before it was cool

Volkswagen's first-ever EV, the T2 Elektro Bus, came in 1972. It was an experimental vehicle that had a massive, 2,000-pound battery, but to make things easier, the whole pack could be swapped in a matter of minutes. That was decades before names like Nio, Gogoro, or Ample even existed.

Back in the 1970s, the legendary T1 bus had been retired in Europe and the United States, and in its place the T2 van took its place as the go-to solution for Germany’s businesses, big or small. And it’s the T2 that became Volkswagen’s first-ever electrified vehicle with help from Bosch, Siemens, and Varta–battery-swapping included.

Enter the Elektro Bus, a prototype that emerged in 1972 as the product of VW’s Department of Future Research which was established two years earlier to try and find more sustainable energy sources for commercial and passenger vehicles.

The first Elektro Bus was of the single-cab pickup variety simply because it had enough room for the huge, 1,874-pound (850-kilogram) lead-acid battery pack and rear DC motor under the loading area.

That electric motor was initially built by Bosch and later by Siemens and had a continuous output of 16 kilowatts (22 horsepower), but a maximum output of 32 kW (44 hp) could be dispensed for short bursts.

But with almost 2,000 lbs of weight from the batteries, the T2 Electro Bus was a far cry from today’s EVs in terms of performance, with period documentation mentioning a top speed of 46 miles per hour (75 kilometers per hour) and a zero to 31 mph (0-50 kph) time of 12.5 seconds.

Gallery: 1972 Volkswagen T2 Elektro Bus

Throughout the 1970s, Volkswagen built 120 electric T2s both as pickups and vans, and most of them were used in West Germany by electrical companies or government research agencies. However, ten of them ended up at the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States.

Toward the end of the limited production run, the power output of the electric van went slightly up to a continuous 23 hp and a peak of 45 hp, while the top speed went down to 43 mph (70 kph).

As for range, it was estimated that the T2 Elektro Bus could travel anywhere between 31 and 62 miles (50-100 km) on a full charge, which is adequate for city driving but nowhere near enough for long distances.

But here’s where things get interesting because VW’s first EV had two aces up its sleeve. First, it had an energy recuperation system that was used to store kinetic energy when braking.

Second, the whole Varta-made battery pack could be swapped in a matter of minutes thanks to a special conveyor belt-type system that simply took out the depleted pack and rolled in a freshly charged one. This was decades before companies like Nio, Gogoro, and Ample even existed.

Production of the Volkswagen T2 Elektro Bus ended sometime in the early 1980s when it was pretty clear that battery technology still had to go a long way before it could be a viable alternative to gasoline. Fast-forward to 2024 and the ID. Buzz is available as a great example of how far EVs have come.

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