We all know that Tesla didn’t build the first electric vehicle. EVs have been around since the horseless carriage days. For better or for worse, the gas engine soon gained supremacy, but over the years, both major automakers and startups have experimented with EVs, and a few models have briefly gone into production. Many may be surprised to learn that the best-selling EV in US history prior to the advent of Tesla was not produced by any of the Big Three, but by a small company based in Florida.
The oil crisis of the 1970s spurred a short spurt of interest in EVs. A car salesman named Bob Beaumont designed an EV called the CitiCar, and set up a company called Sebring-Vanguard to build it.
The CitiCar was produced between 1974 and 1977 at the company’s plant in Sebring, Florida. It embodied the unfortunate stereotype that many people still have of EVs—a tiny two-seater based on a Club Car golf cart, it ran on eight 6-volt lead-acid batteries, and featured a plastic body, a top speed of 60 mph and a range of about 40 miles. Some 4,444 CitiCars and related models were produced, giving it the distinction of the most produced American EV until the Tesla Roadster took that title in 2011.
Ioanna Lykiardopoulou, writing in The Next Web, recaps the history of the CitiCar, and has assembled a collection of rarely-seen photos and video footage.
Above: Original Citicar footage from the factory and in the streets of Sebring, Florida (YouTube: British Movietone via AP Archive)
Several models of the CitiCar were offered over its short lifetime. Classic Car History provides a detailed description of the various variants, including how to tell them apart (just in case you run across an old CitiCar at a garage sale).
The early SV/36 featured six 36-volt batteries and a 1.9 kW (2.5 hp) motor. Top speed was about 28 mph, and range was around 35 miles. Shortly after launch, the CitiCar got an upgrade—the SV/48 had eight batteries and a 2.6 kW (3.5 hp) motor. Top speed was 38 mph, and range was around 40 miles. Beginning in 1976, Sebring-Vanguard started building a new version known as the Transitional or 1976 1/2 CitiCar, which had a far more powerful 4.5 kW (6 hp) motor.
For comparison, most modern EVs use a 400-volt system (the Porsche Taycan, and several upcoming models, run on 800 volts). The latest Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus offers 306 hp and 353 miles of range.
The CitiCar was priced at around $3,000, which was cheaper than the average gas-powered car at the time, and it sold pretty well for a couple of years. However, once the energy crisis passed and gas prices went back down, demand plummeted, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1977. A company called Commuter Vehicles later purchased most of the company’s assets, redesigned the vehicle and renamed it the ComutaCar. This was produced from 1979 to 1982.
In 1980, the company won a contract with the US Postal Service to build 500 electric postal vans. At some point the contract was canceled, and the dispute ended up in federal court (40 years later, the USPS still hasn’t committed to electrifying its antique fleet). According to Classic Car History, it appears that 367 of the Postal ComutaVans were built, and some were sold to the public.
Today, all the versions of the CitiCar are rare birds, but there are still some out there, and a few may even be plying the roads somewhere.
Above: This CitiCar recently charged via J1772 at a public charging station next to a Tesla Model S (YouTube: Lewis Moten)
As Ms. Lykiardopoulou notes, it took a crisis to inspire the invention of the CitiCar—the 1973-1974 Arab Oil Embargo and the brief period of energy insecurity that followed. The current proliferation of EVs had its roots in the global climate crisis, and was recently kicked into high gear by the Corona pandemic. In the always-clear rear-view mirror, we can see that policymakers in the 1970s were short-sighted. The West made an uneasy peace with OPEC, and the US expanded the domestic extraction of oil, gas and coal. A few decades later, this led to the mess we find ourselves in today. This time around, will world leaders take advantage of a crisis to build a truly sustainable transport and energy economy? We’ll see.