You may have recently noticed a significant increase in hysteria surrounding the environment. Now let’s be clear, I oppose bulldozing the rainforest and feeding plastic bottles to dolphins as much as anyone else. I can see that human activity has contributed to global warming and that emissions from industry and transport need to be reduced. However, behind the headline clickbait of protestors supergluing themselves to trains and proclaiming the end of days, the actual science around how to achieve a carbon neutral society is vague at best.
I could propose that reducing the rapidly growing global population would help and point out the hypocritical irony of climate change hippies wanting a better future for each of their seven children, but we’d probably get angry letters and end up on some sort of hitlist for when the revolution comes. So I won’t. All of us car enthusiasts will already be in for a tricky enough time, so I suppose we need to show willing, but the truth is that I don’t see classic cars as much of a problem. Yes, exhaust emissions are higher than those from new cars but mileage tends to be minimal and most of the ecological impact has already happened; the old cars already exist. The process of manufacturing a complex new vehicle is immensely polluting, especially so when you add batteries into the equation. The annual whole life carbon impact of doing a few thousand miles in my old crock is microscopic compared to ordering a brand new hybrid. It’s not as if plugging a hybrid into the mains should be guilt free anyway. The electricity isn’t produced by magic fairies. Even if you kid yourself it’s all generated by wind turbines and solar panels, such installations are not exactly constructed of pure distilled innocence and they’re hardly easy on the eye or sympathetic to natural habitats. But sorry, there are 7.7 billion people out there who all deserve a perfect Instagram life, and me bringing factual complications into the matter won’t help. We need to stop the use of all fossil fuels by next Tuesday afternoon and go electric. Ok, you want electric? We can do electric.
The week’s Prime Find will allow you to keep your ViaRETRO credentials, be smug about not introducing a new car onto our crowded roads and embrace electricity (make sure you are earthed first though, it’s dangerous stuff). The history of electric cars goes right back to the dawn of motoring, back to when the term “hybrid” referred to breeding your cat with a goat just to see what would happen. Early horseless carriages were rather held back by contemporary internal combustion engines and electric stole an early lead on petrol. The key enabling technology was the lead-acid battery, invented in 1859 by Frenchman Raimond Louis Gaston Planté. English engineer Thomas Parker then developed a technique to improve the efficiency of the individual cells by using an acid treatment to honeycomb the plates, thereby increasing their surface area and enhancing their capacity to store energy. It so happened that Planté had simultaneously come to the same conclusions and they were both awarded patents on the same day in 1882.
The Englishman’s Elwell-Parker company subsequently bought out the Frenchman’s rights and Parker is credited as prototyping the first practical electric car in 1884, complete with those rechargeable lead-acid batteries. As early as 1897, New York City boasted a fleet of twelve electric taxis which neither deposited the malodorous calling cards of horse drawn cabs, nor required the maintenance demanded by the embryonic gas guzzlers. An impressive 30,000 electric cars existed globally by 1900 and if you were a betting man you would have assumed the future was clear. However, petrol power was ultimately more practical for the infrastructure of the time and rapid development soon propelled the combustion motor off and over the horizon. Ironically, electricity provided the one key development which did so much to make the ICE engine more attractive; namely the electric starter motor.
It would be nearly 100 years until electric cars would once again start to gain traction in mainstream motoring, but the idea didn’t completely go away in the meantime. Electricity could still be found in some public service vehicles and niche applications such as milkfloats, but we’ve found a genuine classic electric car that should keep both you and the extinction protesters happy. We present, the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar.
Originating from Sebring in Florida, the CitiCar was a response to the fuel crisis of the early 70s and an experiment in utilitarian personal mobility. You may be forgiven for thinking it was simply a novelty, a glorified golf cart with no practical purpose, but Sebring-Vanguard were deadly serious and it was actually an evolution of a previous attempt at glory. Debuting in 1974, the tiny CitiCar needed to account for the fact that battery technology had not advanced much since Thomas Parker’s day, so mimicking the archetypal American land yacht was off the menu. Sebring-Vanguard’s vision was to produce the very minimum of car as a matter of principle, and for a commuter tool there was simply no need to go large. Measuring only 2.4m by 1.4m and constructed from Cycolac ABS resin, the lightweight wedge shaped body concealed an aluminium frame incorporating a safety hoop to protect the occupants in the event of a roll. Accidents were perhaps best avoided but a top speed of 28mph was protection itself from most dangers, unless you were inadvertently trampled by a stray Eldorado.
The car was available in two mechanical variants throughout its production run; the SV-36 or the SV-48. The initial 36 volt model took its name from the six 6v batteries which powered a 2.5hp Baldor electric motor giving a 28mph top end capability. This was superseded by the higher performance SV-48 which boasted eight 6v batteries producing 48 volts feeding a 3.5hp electric motor. Foot to the boards, a top speed of 38 mph was attainable if perhaps not desirable. Each variant was equipped with a three step contactor control system in lieu of a conventional gearbox. The CitiCar could offer a range of up to 40 miles between charges, but with so many caveats that anyone depending on the full distance capability may have found themselves pushing it some of the way. They would have then found the CitiCar to be heavier than it might appear to be, at 570kg unladen, but batteries have never been light. Strangely, the SV-36 originally featured front disc brakes but these were ditched on the higher performance SV-48 in favour of drums all round for reasons unclear, but I suppose “higher performance” is still a relative term.
Probably the most remarkable fact is that the CitiCar sold well enough for Sebring-Vanguard to claim the position of America’s 6th biggest automaker by 1976, but that title flatters to deceive when you consider all the GM brands are lumped as one for example. Sebring-Vanguard were bought out by Commuter Vehicles Inc in 1977 and production continued until 1979 by which time a total of 4,444 had been produced. The CitiCar thereby claimed the record for highest volume American post war electric vehicle until the Tesla Model S whirred onto the scene in 2012. Somewhat improbably, the core design of the CitiCar lives on in the present day in the form of the Norwegian made Buddy, itself a development of the similarly obscure Kewet. Here are a few pictures of the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar which we’ve borrowed from the dealers website:
You now have the rare chance to buy your own CitiCar and you don’t even have to venture to America to collect it. Currently on offer at Potoma Classics in the Netherlands (whose website incidentally lists all manner of fabulously mad contraptions) is this low mileage example, which according to the vendor boasts new brakes, tyres and batteries. It’s not 100% clear whether it’s the firebreathing 48v model or the sloth-like 36v, but you probably can’t be too picky if you’re looking for one. The price is not listed so you’ll have to negotiate for yourselves, but it looks good and it’s a lot more convenient than going to Florida. Unless you live in Florida, obviously. So go on, do the right thing and contribute to saving the planet. Go electric, and with this little number you’ll even do so with the blessing of ViaRETRO. Here’s a link to the website: 1975 Sebring-Vanguard Citicar
With our Saturday instalment of Prime Find of the Week, we’re offering our services to the classic car community, by passing on our favourite classic car for sale from the week that passed. This top-tip might help a first-time-buyer to own his first classic, or it could even be the perfect motivation for a multiple-classic-car-owner to expand his garage with something different. We’ll let us inspire by anything from a cheap project to a stunning concours exotic, and hope that you will do the same.
Just remember – Any Classic is Better than No Classic! We obviously invite our readers to help prospective buyers with your views and maybe even experiences of any given model we feature. Further to that, if you stumble across a classic which you feel we ought to feature as Prime Find of the Week, then please send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org