As the automotive industry slowly crawls into the energy transition, many of the big auto players have been trying to show us that they have been interested in electric vehicles for a long time. From a cynical perspective, it looks like they’re trying to save face after being beaten to market by an upstart (Tesla). On the other hand, the companies did experiment with EVs over the decades long before there was much pressure to do so. That must mean they were at least interested.
One good example of this is when GM reminded us in 2017 that it built the NASA Lunar Rover, which was an electric vehicle. Combustion engines don’t tend to work well on the moon because there’s basically no atmosphere, so GM didn’t have a lot of choice in what the Rover would be powered by. On the other hand, the company has been experimenting with EVs when it had the choice, building vehicles like the Electrovair II and Electrovette.
We have to realize that the lack of electrification in the 20th century was a complex issue. Battery technology was subpar for the needs of many drivers, and definitely below their wants. Oil companies had (and continue to have) a lot of political sway. Governments were at times friendly to EVs, but were openly hostile to them otherwise. It took a serious amount of blood, sweat, and tears — to the point of a nervous breakdown — for Tesla to take off. There was that much resistance, even when the battery technology had matured.
Instead of bashing on VW, I think it’s worth spending a little time looking at what it has to say about its history. While it probably could have done more to get EVs on the road, it wasn’t doing nothing, either.
The 1972 Elektro-Bus
Like other manufacturers, high oil prices in the 1970s led to more experiments with electric vehicles. The company assigned an 11-person team to design and build a battery pack to power the company’s first electric vehicle.
The company actually built around 120 of the vehicles, so it was technically a production vehicle. It had big bank of lead-acid batteries, and the batteries were placed low in the vehicle in the center like modern EVs. The heavy weight of the batteries of the era didn’t leave any other option, really. Unfortunately, it only had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed of only 43 MPH.
The 1976 Elektro-Golf
The company didn’t stop with the electric microbus. Just a few years later, it built the predecessor to the more recent e-Golf (which itself is the predecessor to the ID.3).
The vehicle was externally the same as any other Volkswagen Golf, but instead of a four-cylinder gasoline engine, it had an electric motor connected to a 4-speed manual transmission. Like the electric microbus, it had lead-acid batteries. They were so big that the vehicle couldn’t have rear seats, unfortunately. Range was about 31 miles.
The vehicle didn’t go into production, but VW engineers did use it around town to collect more information on what it takes to power and run an EV so that they wouldn’t get caught flat-footed in the future when better battery technologies came available, but they probably didn’t think that would take as long as it did.
The 1981 Golf I CitySTROMer
The company didn’t stop there. In 1981, it released another electric Golf, with “I Drive Electric” on the hood. A German utility was interested in further development, so the company worked with it to improve the electric Golf. This time, the range was better at 37 miles, and didn’t take up the space of the back seat. Charging times were improved enough that someone could theoretically drive up to 62 miles daily if they charged it during the day. This made it one of the first usable electric vehicles.
They did a small production run, making 25 of the vehicles.
The 1985 Golf II CitySTROMer
Four years after the last one, Volkswagen and the utilities went to the next level. With an improved gel-cell battery, they didn’t have quite as much range as the last one, but the vehicle could go up to 62 MPH. An 11.4 kWh battery pack fed a 31 HP electric motor. 70 of them were made and sold, primarily to the electric utilities, who used them for customer service in Germany, but they were available to the public for the first time.
The 1988 Jetta CitySTROMer
Just three years later, the company was able to do a whole lot more with an electric Jetta. A new sodium-sulphur battery pack was half the weight of the previous lead-acid battery packs. This enabled a 75-mile range at speeds of up to 65 MPH. Unfortunately, the battery chemistry wasn’t really suitable for mass production and the vehicle was not produced or sold.
The 1993 Golf MkIII CitySTROMer
Five years later, the company decided to take another swing at it when the new generation of Golf was released. 16 gel batteries only gave a range of 55 miles, but the charging technology was vastly improved, allowing a charge back up to 80% in about 1.5 hours using a standard European electrical connection. The vehicle also used regenerative braking, allowing for greater ranges.
About 120 of the vehicles were sold over three years.
Up To Present
Battery technology didn’t improve much in the ’90s, and the improved nickel-cadmium batteries that Toyota and GM put in some of their California EVs ended up under the control of oil companies. That’s probably why the company doesn’t have any projects to show from the later ’90s and 2000s.
The company had another electric concept in 2011, but it wasn’t for a practical vehicle.
Since that time, the company got a lot more serious about EVs as Tesla became more and more successful and other industry players started building their own EVs. This led to production EVs like the e-Golf, and racing projects like the ID.R that set record times on Pikes Peak.
Today, the company (like the rest of the automotive industry) is on much more solid EV footing. While initially a punishment for the Dieselgate scandal, the Electrify America network might be one of the best things that happened to Volkswagen going forward. It will enable the company’s current and future EVs to gain a competitive edge over other vehicles with free charging plans and other incentives.
Volkswagen obviously still has a long ways to go, but it’s nice to see the company showing off its EV history as something to be proud of!
Featured image provided by Volkswagen