One of the things I enjoy most when traveling is visiting small museums, especially those with a local focus. Those are often the places where I find those things that “upset your expectations,” as my signature line says. Last weekend in Schenectady, NY that happened again, when I found the hidden story of a modern electric car that almost made it to market long before Prius or Tesla.
Since Schenectady has long been known as the “Electric City” and home to General Electric, it should come as no surprise that GE is the company behind the car. What has come as a surprise to me is how little-known the 1978 GE-100 is; it’s not even mentioned in Wikipedia articles on electric cars, although it came within months of being put into production back in the 1970s.
This prototype, and the story, are in Schenectady’s Museum of Innovation and Science as part of an exhibit on Fueling the Future. It’s a one-of-a-kind that cost $250,000 to build, using only off-the-shelf, commercially-available products. That’s a lot for one car (unless it’s a million-dollar Ferrari), but the engineers calculated that it would cost about $6,000 each if 100,000 were built—and that’s about the price of a similar-sized gas-engine car at the time.
The GE-100, was designed as a project for GE’s 100th birthday in 1978, and also to show off what GE could supply for anyone planning to build them in bulk. The parts came from 18 different departments of GE, and from auto parts suppliers. Even the batteries were already in existence; the car used 18 6-volt deep-discharge lead-acid batteries, derived from the ones used to power golf carts and forklifts. A standard 12-volt battery handled headlights, radio, etc.
And notice the full-access hood, and the doors that pop out and slide up. That feature should be looked at: It allowed the doors to open fully without needing a big space to swing wide and ding the car in the next spot! The batteries were easy, too: A tray under the surprisingly large trunk space slid out to allow easy battery service or changing.
That's Edison himself, holding up the hood of an electric car in 1914
And that’s a reminder that electric cars really aren’t that new at all; in fact, at the beginning of the automobile age, electrics sold up to about 10% of the market. After all, most buyers weren’t planning to go long distances, or at high speeds.
Edison's personal Baker Electric was similar to this 1902 model
Even after the electrics died off before World War I, it continued to be the preferred power for many forklifts and carts, and even, for many years, for UPS trucks. In 1899, when Walter Baker founded the leading electric car company, customer #2 was Thomas Edison, founder of General Electric. Incidentally, he never had a driver’s license! Around the same time, Ferdinand Porsche designed electric and hybrid cars for an Austrian company.
So, what could the GE-100 do? About 45 miles of city driving, or 75-100 highway on a single charge. It could do 0-30 in 9 seconds, not exactly super, but not totally shabby. Top speed of about 60, cruising speed 45-55, so not likely to be passing too many others (for the extreme version of that, have a look at this video of the GE-100 on the race track with Indy cars). Recharge took 6-8 hours overnight, on house current. Obviously a 220v charger would have been faster.
GE showed the car off in a number of places, as you can see from the pictures of it on the track and in Washington, DC. The only story I could find about it in the NY Times reported that the company was showing it off on college campuses near New York.
So, if it was that practical, and that close to production, what happened? Well, those of us old enough to remember those days remember oil troubles. Arab embargoes and other events drove prices up, and at points restricted supplies enough that gas stations had long lines, and states imposed systems to avoid chaos (odd numbers one day, even numbers the next).
That drove up interest in economical cars and in cars that wouldn’t use gas at all. The federal Energy Department funded some of the efforts. And then the gas became plentiful again, prices dropped, and so did interest in GE’s electric car. And so, the GE-100 became just a fascinating footnote in automotive history.
More next week on the Museum of Innovation of Science and the Schenectady County Historical Museum—a great pair to visit!