InsideEVs Exclusive Interview with General Motors EV1 Marketing Director John Dabels – Part 2


1996 GM EV1 Meets 2011 Chevrolet Volt - What Could Have Been In-Between?

1996 GM EV1 Meets 2011 Chevrolet Volt – What Could Have Been In-Between?

Part 2 Of InsideEV’s Interview with GM EV1 Marketing Director John Dabels continues….

Editor’s Note:  If you missed part one on the behind-the-scenes 411 on General Motor’s EV1 project, you can check it out here.

Mark Hovis (InsideEVs): The question that Sam Dellinger and I have which is covered in the film (Who Killed the Electric Car) is how could GM justify crushing the EV1s?

John Dabels Speaks Candidly About The EV1 Project

John Dabels Speaks Candidly About The EV1 Project

John Dabels: That is relatively simple answer.  It starts with controlling the distribution of the cars.  I fully support GM’s decision.

Mark Hovis: To crush the cars??

John Dabels: Yes.   When you buy a car and take title, that triggers an obligation by the manufacturer to provide service parts.  I am paraphrasing the law, but if you buy a car at any authorized dealership in the US, the manufacturer must provide service and parts for 10 years. So, you buy an EV1 in California and you move to Bangor, Maine.  GM has to provide service.  Leasing takes care of that problem.

Mark Hovis: I buy that. Our contributors at InsideEVs understand the lease.

John Dabels: The mistake GM made was not to lease the EV1’s again and even a 3rd time.

Mark Hovis: Why wouldn’t you put them in a museum?

John Dabels: There are few around.  (Editor’s note: there is about 40 still in existence in one form or another today)

Mark Hovis: Not enough!

Not The Best "Final Image" Of The EV1

Not The Best “Final Image” Of The EV1

John Dabels: The disposal of the cars was poorly handled, I agree with that.  As far as the reason, it was the triggering of the title that GM was concerned about.  Anyway that is the rationale for that.

Mark Hovis: It looks like GM could have gotten the word out better on this issue. Failure to do so left it open to the conspiracy.

John Dabels: A little more insight into the inner workings of the EV1 program.  Toward the end of 1992, GM is still hemorrhaging cash.  The Board replaces Bob Stempel as CEO with Jack Smith.  If you cut through all the official press releases, what occurred was a palace coup – the Financial staff takes over the CEO position with the help of Board member John Smale of P&G, who became chairman.  Neither Smith nor Smale is what anyone would call a car guy.


I wish discussion of the palace coup would come out more when people are assessing the EV1 program.  I’m not naïve about the financial needs of a company.  I spent my early years at GM on the financial staff.  But what a lot of financial staff people do not understand is where profits come from.  I know that statement might seem odd but financial guys seem to spend more time looking at how to reduce cost than how to generate more revenue.  Show me a company that saved its way into prosperity.

Hovis: OK but how did the financial guys really affect the EV1?

The Only "Functional" GM EV1 Given To The Smithsonian. This particular EV1 was returned to GM in 2000 by Leasee Phil Karn (phot0 via Jeff Tinsley)

The Only “Functional” GM EV1 Given To The Smithsonian. This particular EV1 was returned to GM in 2000 by Leasee Phil Karn (phot0 via Jeff Tinsley)

John Dabels:  The most vivid example occurred at one of the regular meetings with corporate staff.  Time is Fall 1992.  There are eight people in the meeting, which is held at the then GM building on West Grand Boulevard.  The conference room is near the Board room.   There are four of us and four corporate staff.  Bob Stempel is the only non-financial guy from the corporate staff. The meeting starts at 3:00.  A portion of the meeting addresses all the positive publicity the EV1 program is generating for GM.

We stress that much of the positive image of GM is among younger people, who have shied away from most GM products.  Jack Smith, then GM president, asks “Are many of these people  old enough to buy cars and if not what do we care?”   That question is a perfect example of the difficulty in educating the financial staff on the value of the program.  Take someone who is say 14 years old now.  Do you know how many cars they are going to buy in their life?   They might buy twenty cars or more.  You want that person to consider your product.  Don’t make them mad! (Not John’s exact words)

Now, in all fairness, we (GM) had financial pressures at that time.   But the meeting was effectively the death knell of the EV1.   At 5:00 Jack stands up, turns to Bob Stempel and says “Bob, you can’t afford the program.” A few days later, the board meets and asks Bob Stempel to resign and puts Jack in as CEO.

That part of the story never gets told.   But the story is indicative of a program going from having support by senior management  to no support.   At the same time worldwide you’ve got all this interest and positive publicity about GM.  But it was ignored.

After the palace coup, the hatchet is taken to the  program. Jack Smith’s team was heavy on financial guys.  A few years later Rick Wagoner, also a financial guy replaces Jack Smith.  So was the decision to cut back on the program a right one?  A number of years later Rick Wagoner admitted cutting back was a mistake.  Here was a tiny program by automotive standards generating very positive publicity and many product innovations.

GM EV1 Interior

GM EV1 Interior

Sam Dellinger: Boy, that must have been frustrating.

John Dabels: Understatement of the week.  We used to rank information according to credibility. Word of mouth is number one and media is number two.  So where is advertising? Toward the bottom of the credibility scale. We tried to explain how the $6- 8 million marketing budget was worth some maybe $600-800 million worth of advertising.

Sam Dellinger: Tesla doesn’t advertise. (Note Sam owns a Model S Signature, Chevy Volt and a 10kWh PV solar array. Sam is retired and living the dream)

GM Could Have Used Elon Musk A Decade Or So Ago

GM Could Have Used Someone Like Elon Musk A Decade Or So Ago

John Dabels: Elon Musk understands  very well the value of the media.  We could have used him.  With the positive press about EV1, GM had more families coming to showrooms – Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and other divisions – than you would otherwise.  You have a teenager saying “You know what dad, GM has an EV1  program and it is really cool.  Let’s go look at their cars“  Tell me any father that doesn’t want to be “cool.”

Sam Dellinger: I agree the car was cool.  Still is.

John Dabels: But none of the value of the media coverage was ever recognized by the financial staff.

Mark Hovis: What about sales volume?  Wasn’t that important?

Dabels: The EV1 program  was always going to be limited volume. By automotive standards, Tesla volume is a rounding error. Yet they’ve got all the press with this tiny volume. Musk understands the value of the media.  The unit volume for EV1 never should have mattered but it did matter.

Mark Hovis: What would the EV1 program look like today had GM stayed the course?

John Dabels: EV1 would be the number #1 electric vehicle.  GM would be miles ahead. There would be a lot more people in EV’s.   GM would have more overall market share…and might have avoided bankruptcy.

Mark Hovis: You spoke of the land speed record.

John Dabels: Yes.  183 miles per hour. Not bad for what some people considered a glorified golf cart. We  modified a pilot production car and set the land speed record.  What also took a regular EV1 and had a drag race with a Miata, and Nissan 280ZX.  The EV1 won, of course.  I think the video is on YouTube.

Below: Video John was speaking of

Sam Dellinger: Anything else?

John Dabels: That’s enough for now.  Some parts of the story you might not have heard.  When people ask about a conspiracy, I tell them there was no conspiracy to kill the car because we weren’t smart enough to think of one.   I’ve given this a lot of thought and I believe the reason the Ev1 died was due more to a lack of understanding inside the company of EV1’s value, rather than some external force. The real story of EV1’s demise might not be as exciting as the film but it is a lesson for all.

Many Thanks to John Dabels for a walk down memory lane. If you had a question for John Dabels, what would it be?

Some questions answered in Part 3

Categories: Chevrolet, General

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45 Comments on "InsideEVs Exclusive Interview with General Motors EV1 Marketing Director John Dabels – Part 2"

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Hey John,
Do you see any parallels between current GM management and what happened to the EV1?.

Seems like current GM management doesn’t support the Volt. They are sabotaging the program. They are setting it up for failure by purposely allowing Volt sales for this year to be less than last.

What kind of marketing is that?

The reason why Elon Musk is doing so well with Tesla is when you look at it him and his company he and his company really give out the feeling that they care about their product. Also when you look at the cars they are making they are not compance cars and do so well they can even drive around like normal cars in very EV unfriendly states like no big deal. They are also making advancements. I can say Elon Musk is a genius in that say he has based his business model where the competition has the I don’t want do it and your as the California air resources board are going to make me do as I go kicking and screaming.

As for GM’s Spark EV along with the Volt they are both Turkeys and they sound and act like someone from that Kathy Perry Song your hot and your cold in that say ya where going to make a EV. They spend the money to build a highly rated EV but at the same time they only make enough to meet the bare minimum for Carb sales in California and Oregon.

You say the Volt is a turkey. Why? By what standard? It’s sold more than any other plug-in car in the U.S., and it got #1 customer satisfaction ratings in 2011 and 2012, and #3 in 2013.

The reason why I think the Volt is a Turkey is that I have seen only one on the roads in my area while I have seen two Teslas, several Nissan Leafs and a ton of Ford C Max plug ins. The C Max plug ins are reproducing like jack rabbits in my area.

Also the Nissan Leaf is now managing to outsell the Volt. And other EV’s are now starting to win over the Volt in the EV smack down. If you look at it the Volt is priced way higher then a lot of other EV’s out there on the road.

If you go out on my mother’s deck at the right time of year, you will very likely find hundreds of turkeys playing in the mud. If you have a house in Brooklyn, you will likely never see a turkey in your back yard.

My point is that local observations are fundamentally flawed. It is much better to look at the national sales numbers. One could equally sit in a cafe in LA and see dozens of EVs pass by – FitEVs, Fiat 500es, Spark EVs, RAV4EVs, etc. But that doesn’t mean they sell well elsewhere (or are even available outside of California).

But if you leave your house in Brooklyn and drive over the Verazanno Bridge to Staten Island you’ll see that turkeys are taking over! It’s only a matter of time until those turkeys walk across the bridge to Brooklyn. 😉


By using your logic, then the ONLY EVs exist in the SF Bay Area are Tesla Model S, Volt and LEAF (in that order).

We all know that is NOT true.

Just curious, where do you live? Maybe Volt is a turkey in your area b/c your area are full of FOX NEWS watcher and GM haters…

By what standard is GM sabotaging the Volt? I must have missed it.

We’ve had other articles.
Looks like they are holding back production….and of course not promoting the Volt.

4 seats instead of 5 is a big negative they could avoid but haven’t up to now.

The Spark is built like an airplane, in that weight is critical. It holds four adults of not more than 250 lbs each, no more. The cup-holder apparatus that separates the back seat is there to enforce that.

Here is an excerpt from my file regarding the ordeal Chevrolet is putting me through due to their ridiculous, 20th century user interface called, “The Dealer”: “The car I leased is not what I asked for and was told I would get, and, a more expensive lease was substituted for the one we had agreed upon, less than two hours before signing. A complete chronology of events including documentation of the DC Fast Charging option advertisements (2) I was told I would get, a copy of the first lease showing the Federal Tax Credit going to the lessee, upon purchase of the car at lease end, and a copy of the second lease, which I signed under duress, after trying to leave (walk away), is available. I have photos (showing the police car I had to call) of the night Diamond Hills Auto Group Chevrolet left the car on the street in front of my house. I assumed the two unidentified men who dropped off the car were DHAC employees. In the first two days of possession, the battery went completely flat and wouldn’t accept a charge. At that point I also doubted that the promised DC Fast Charging option… Read more »

What I’d like to know is did any one ever investigate Jack Smith’s financial records. Did he, or any of his family, ever receive a large sum of money from any unexplainable sources?
Did he or any of his family own a large interest (stocks, bonds) in any oil affiliated companies at the time. I don’t think full discloser was in effect back then.

Call me a conspiracy nut but it seems he threw the first stone.


I’d love to hear John’s rationale for the very unconventional advertising for the EV1. You know, the one with the car driving through very forbidding parched landscape with a grave-marker like scarecrow in the scene.

Those commercials for the EV1 they had for it where very creepy expect for the one with the eletric applances going out into the street to greet it. I think I could have made a better low budget commercial myself.

The quote of the day:

“there was no conspiracy to kill the car because we weren’t smart enough to think of one.”

The same applies to the JFK assassination, 9/11, and other conspiracy theories. Effective conspiracies are just too hard to pull off by nominally-incompetent management, as is frequently the case with large corps or the government.

Applying Occam’s Razor – simple Peter-Principle-based incompetence is usually the real reason for these types of fiascos.

Yet, just about evey GM hater (from EV-1) is swearing that is the reason that GM killed EV1….

The executive leadership at GM don’t seem to share vission and values. While the EV1 didn’t have good operational financials, it did have great brand value. Killing the brand while customer value was high created a financial loss that wasn’t visible to accountents at time the program was terminated. GM paid for that lost brand value.

A flashback to the 1990’s … via classic EV1 media.

EV1 Ad (w/ appliances) & BBC TopGear review of EV1:

– surprising how many of the myths emphasized continue to persist with the LEAF today

Look at EV1 via Detroit Autoline:

– great overview of EV1’s technology and how similar its features are to EVs made 25 years later

I’d like to know exactly what happened when the patents for the NiMh batteries were sold to the oil companies. What kind of conversation went on there.

Why does anyone still thinks that NiMH is a superior solution to Li-ion?

The recharging cycle and cost are the only two slight advantage. But weight, power density and energy density are all Way lower than Li-ion…

Who said they think that NiMH is a superior solution to Li-ion?

I don’t think anyone was saying that. But for over a decade, NiMh was the best we had available. If you wanted to build a viable plug-in car you needed NiMh. I don’t even believe the Prius would have ever existed without access to NiMh technology. And the Prius was hindered by an agreement that 100% of the power must come from gasoline. So Toyota couldn’t even experiment with PHEV until Li-ion came around and became reliable enough.

Thanks to all 3 of you and to insideevs for this amazing interview. I have learned so much!

While it sounds like the EV1’s death was not the result of a conspiratorial collusion between GM and Big Oil, according to this interview, IMHO it was still a conspiracy albeit a different and more universal one:

The conspiracy of Wall Street against Main Street.

This is what happens then the keys are handed over to neoliberal financial types. They are the kind of people who think that a car company getting ahead of the competition with advanced technology is a “bad idea”
– but that slicing and dicing mortgages into CDOs, spreading the risk across the globe, and using the resulting cash flow to sell millions of mortgages with zero chance of being paid off – is “the best idea since sliced bread”.

It’s the Bane Capital, financial meltdown story of our times. EV1 was just another victim.

I hope this monstrosity of oligarchy-by-miscalculated-spreadsheet has passed its zenith, and that the resurgence of the EV, especially upstart companies like Tesla, VIA and Proterra, is another sign that Main Street is coming back to the fore.

Thanks again, Assaf

More specifically, I would like you ask John Dables after, in 1994, General Motors acquired Ovonic Batteries, ostensibly to allow the equity alliance to develop these larger NiMH batteries for use in GM’s EV1 BEV. But then , why let sales of GM-Ovonics batteries devision be taken over by GM manager and critic of CARB John Williams. That unfortunate takeover lead Stan Ovshinsky, the inventor of the NiMH battery, to wonder whether his decision to sell his company Ovonic Batteries to GM had been naive. It also seems counter productive to give this division to Williams since he went on to thwart the potential for the internal use of these batteries for more EV1’s or the profitable selling of batteries to other manufacturers that needed to meet CARB mandates. The EV1 program was shut down by GM just as the new NiMH extended the EV1’s range to over 150 miles. In fact those cars ran successfully in the upgraded EV1’s in customer hands for years without any problems that I know of. And then, finally why did GM sell its controlling of share GM Ovonics to Texaco with a proviso in the sale that they could not produce any large… Read more »

Company sell certain technology with limitation for “protection” reason.

This is the same reason why GM would rather “kill off” Saturn and Hummer brand than selling them. The last thing GM want was its competitor can use that technology against itself. It is self protection and happens everywhere.

It is basically, “I am NOT going to use it, but I would rather destroy it than allowing you to use it”.

This is NO different from larger Ag corp destroying a perfect good crop to keep the price up or clothing company destroying perfectly good inventory to prevent drop in price while people in need are lacking of both food and cloth.

Like Assaf said,

it is Wall Street against Main Street. This is an classic example where “capitalism or chasing after profit” has prevented advancement in technology.

Of course I know the general reasons why companies do this for “competitive reasons”, but GM also did it for political reasons to leverage CARB to drop the requirement for zero emission vehicles so that neither their competitors nor they could use the technology for BEV’s. Just because they killed the tech for “business and political reasons” does not mean it was not a conspiracy. Though It was legal and not against fair trade practices, it was a conspiracy that set back electric vehicles back 10 years. The car companies colluded to railroad the CARB mandate then as they are still trying to do again, so far with no luck. I just wanted to hear the inside the board room thinking from John Dables. Why not keep the tech for future use or in case CARB reinstated the zero emission mandate, which they did.

+1. There sure was a conspiracy and thinking otherwise is dumb or naive. The more is that the conspiracy is still going on with an ill made i3 a 4 seat Volt a no rex short ranged Leaf and an out in the sky unaffordable rex less Tesla.

Poor Rick Wagoner, I bet he wishes he had a PR Time Machine, lol!

EV1 was good, the Volt better, and Volt 2.0 will be even better!!!

Can’t wait for 2016 Volt 2.0 or Volt MPV!!!

I think GM has learned a lesson in PR. It already acknowledged the benefit of Volt and how many “competitior” models are being traded in for its Volt.

Even if it is NOT, it has value. It would stop people from going to other brands….

Jay, with Plug In Electric Car Reporters such as Mr. Hovis putting out brilliant interview’s along with the rest of your staff, this EV Portal Rocks! Ocean Railroader “[…] they only make enough to meet the bare minimum for Carb sales in California and Oregon.[…]” My response- 1) Pushing past 65,000 Voltec EREV’s world wide, Volt/Ampera, since the Modern EV Era began in November of 2011, as both the Chevy Volt EREV and Nissan LEAF came off BETA. a) “As of October 2013, the Volt and Ampera models have combined global sales of over 61,000 units, with the U.S. as the leading market with 50,240 Chevrolet Volts delivered since its introduction in 2010. Opel/Vauxhall Ampera sales in Europe totaled 7,700 units through October 2013. The Netherlands is the world’s second largest Volt/Ampera market and leads the European region with 3,894 Amperas and 1,050 Volts sold through October 2013. The Volt is the top selling plug-in electric car in the United States, and the Volt/Ampera family is the best selling plug-in hybrid in the world.” Source- Wilipedia b) The Chevy Volt EREV Regional Beta Rollout- (Available Now), denotes December, 2010. 2) Some 2,065 Chevy Volt Extended Range Electric Vehicle… Read more »

Thanks for the kind word Thomas, (

ps) I still have to figure out a way to let you post more than 3 links without you hitting the auto-moderation, hehe

“……There was no conspiracy to kill the car because we weren’t smart enough to think of one……”

THAT is the most true sentence in either part of the interview!

Seriously, it would be interesting to see if there is anyone willing to ‘talk’ about the GM-Texaco dealings.

“Who killed the Electric Car?” showed the main Crook at CARB.

That said, I’m not saying there were no bribes (as one would expect when large amounts of $ are involved).

Pleading ignorance has the most ‘Plausible Deniability Quotient’ , since no one accuse anyone at GM at the time of having Great Brains.

The dumbest thing they ever did was Privately Investigate Ralph Nader. That was the largest individual judgement against a corporation supposedly ever. Or pay $700,000,000.00 to Ross Perot to Leave the Board of Directors!

The clue to the NiMH sale is in this interview. GM had no money and had killed the EV1 program. CARB caved. Oil was cheap. Selling the tech obviously seemed like a good idea.

A terrific summary speaking to the question, “how the heL L did my GM of the 60’s become the GM of the 80’s. Nice to have inside confirmation that it Was the prez’s that we loved to hate.
For all the talk about EV1, it is comedy to realize that without the the very same CARB that was bankrupting GM & Ford, it would never have seen the light of day. Everything else follows according to script, prez didn’t wanna make it, but it was an accidental success, like so many of GM’s wins (see the Grand National video).
While not on board with the grander view described, it is hard to argue that Wall Street’s demand that money-guys were needed to return GM to printing money status again, they failed Miserably, and continue to – our last best hope was Bob Lutz.

“Show me a company that saved its way into prosperity.” no truer words spoken, John – Thanks!

and the why I didn’t buy the volt I was on the list for (if it looked like THIS I woulda’ waited in freezing temps to get it):