1996 GM EV1: The First Modern Electric Car that handed Tesla a 10 year lead

1996 GM EV1: The First Modern Electric Car that handed Tesla a 10 year lead

If you’re interested in this incredible story, I would highly recommend watching “Who Killed the Electric Car”, the 2006 documentary you can watch for free by getting a Prime Video 30 Day trial on us here.

In 1996 GM introduced the first modern mass production, the first real push for electric cars since the last ended in 1912, then in the early 90’s GM gave the electric car another push only for it to be, well a very strange few years and ending. It was also the first GM car in history to wear a “General Motors” nameplate. It is an interesting tale which I will now regale you with. So sit back, get comfortable and let’s talk about the car once nicknamed the Voltswagen.

Too long? Don’t want to read? That’s ok, I made a video version.


Credits: GM Heritage Center

At the 1990 LA Auto Show, GM showed off it’s new Impact electric concept car, introduced by Roger Smith who was the chairman of GM at the time. The concept had been developed in a joint venture between GM and AeroVironment, who had previously worked with GM on an entry into the 1987 World Solar Challenge.

    Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get the latest news, reviews and exclusive product discounts!

    Smith was using the recent win in the 1,800 mile Australian race and wanted to impress the world with how advanced GM was in terms of engineering, little did he know, this would turn into a very interesting time for GM and cause such a stir, it even generated the 2006 Documentary, “Who killed the electric car?”

    In April of 1990, Smith announced GM would put the Impact into production, planning to produce 25,000 of them which would be capable of achieving a top speed of 183 mph. This may have impressed the wrong type of people though and soon some interesting things were happening in the auto industry which are what made the Documentary interesting.

    The statement from Smith, so impressed the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that soon a mandate was put into place that all US automakers needed to ensure that 2% of its fleet were emission-free by 1998, 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003, otherwise they would not be allowed to sell cars in the state of California. This didn’t just hit GM, but instead all members of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association as well as Honda.

    When GM began its PrEView program in 1994, a program where an Impact would be lent to a member of the public for two weeks of testing, they expected around 80 people to enquire but they closed the line after 10,000 people had expressed interest, as well as 14,000 who responded before the line was closed. The car began to get a lot of interest and even Motor Trend at the time said “The Impact is precisely one of those occasions where GM proves beyond any doubt that it knows how to build fantastic automobiles. This is the world’s only electric vehicle that drives like a real car.”

    In the same week that a modified Impact set a 183 mph, land speed record, for a production electric car, reports began circulating that GM was not exactly delighted that their Electric Vehicle experiment was turning into a success. A New York Times article, which ended up on the front page, with the headline “General Motors is preparing to put its electric vehicle act on the road, and planning for a flop,” can be quoted as saying, “General Motors is preparing to put its electric vehicle act on the road, and planning for a flop. With pride and pessimism, the company, the furthest along of the Big Three in designing a mass-market electric car, says that in the face of a California law that requires that 2 percent of new cars be “zero emission” vehicles beginning in 1997, it has done its best but that the vehicle has come up short…. Now it hopes that lawmakers and regulators will agree with it and postpone or scrap the deadline”

    Basically, it seems automakers knew that there was a mass market opportunity for the electric car but were less than interested in throwing away billions of dollars of investment in internal combustion engines.


    EV1 Logo

    In a move that would become eerily familiar, the 50 Impact prototypes were destroyed after testing, but it didn’t matter as by 1996 the Impact had evolved into the GM EV1, interestingly the EV1 would be the first GM car in history to wear a “General Motors” nameplate. The “Gen I” was available in red, dark green or silver, 660 were made and had a range of between 70-100 miles and this is where things get strange, GM decided to lease the cars and at the end of the opening press event they had signed up 40 people for the leases and they planned to lease 100 in the first year. This seemed like a low number for a car that seemed to have such a high demand and would lease between $250 and $500 a month, not needed to be fueled by gas. They were also very specific about who got a car, the first ones were only given to celebrities, politicians and friends of the team who built the car.

    Deliveries began in December of 1996, with Saturn dealerships put in charge of servicing the cars and handling the leases.


    Obviously at the time the car needed to be incredibly aerodynamic to keep range figures as high as possible, batteries are no where near as powerful as they are today so the car was built with a 0.19 air coefficient and had a sweeping tail which made it look like something out of the aerospace industry. It also has what I call Mazda MX-5 lights at the front. It also had covers over the rear wheels, like the first Toyota Prius, to stop air from getting caught under the rear fender and cause drag.

    The interior of the car had a strange new setup with a digital display in the center with lights in a wrap around display under the windshield, also much like the Toyota Prius and Yaris of the early 2000’s. The car also didn’t come with a key, there was a pin keypad on the door frame where the owner entered a 4 digit pin to enter and then entered the same pin on the center console to start the car.


    In 1997, GM started pushing back on CARB to delay the introduction of the 2% fleet number until a few years later, oil groups started funding consumer groups to complain about the tax breaks and interesting GM had only leases 288 in the first year out of the 660 that it created, producing only 4 a day thereafter. This was interesting since they had a waiting list with thousands of consumers on it.

    An outcry from owners to push the EV1 in terms of marketing as they feared that the vehicle would be scrapped, which caused Marvin Rush, a cinematographer for the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, to spend $20,000 producing it’s own advertisement. After this GM spent $10 million on advertising and promised to spend $15 million in 1999, which if you compare to their advertising on other cars, is a tiny amount.

    Although I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorists, it does all add up that GM maybe hadn’t officially wanted this car to fail, but it seems that by 1997 they wanted it to. The proof in my mind is that while they were supposedly behind the car, they were suing CARB to drop the act, which made no sense given they were in a position to remove their competitions ability to sell in California while they had the upper hand.

    454 of the Gen II car were delivered in 1999 and the new version replaced the Lead Acid batteries with NiMH batteries which allowed the car an increased range of 100-140 miles. 450 of the Gen I electric cars were recalled and retrofitted with the new batteries.


    Although production ended in 1999, with 1,117 produced, the assembly plant didn’t shut down until 2002. This is when public outrage began as the company reversed it’s previous statement that it would not be “taking cars off the road from customers.” Instead they told lessees that they would be recalling all of the cars and not renewing any leases for the cars, stating that there was not enough demand to entice them to put them into mass production. According to the Wikipedia entry another reason was that “In addition, the cost of maintaining a parts supply and service infrastructure for the 15-year minimum required by the state of California meant that existing leases would not be renewed, and all the cars would have to be returned to GM’s possession.”

    Customers began sending deposit checks and requesting to buy the cars, sending waivers not to need further support from GM, the company declined unlike Honda who gave into this pressure in their EV+ program. Honda did however recall most of their cars and they would meet the same fate as the EV1.

    Around 40 cars were donated to museums and universities, although their power trains were disabled so that they would never drive again, with the remaining cars taken back by GM and as owners who followed the fate of the cars discovered, the cars were sent to be crushed.

    By 2003, no EV1’s remained on the road and ironically, a month before this Hummer had been purchased by GM. Although we now know that there is one running GM EV1 remaining in the hands of an unlikely owner, famous director Francis Ford Coppola, who somehow managed to hide his EV1 from GM.

    The only other known running GM EV1 which remains is in the Smithsonian Museum which was the only one which GM did not disable at the time.


    GM had a huge upper hand over most other manufacturers at the time in terms of technology and because of short term thinking they put themselves way behind, the oil companies, the automakers and everyone else involved tried to put the nail in the coffin of the electric car, the Bush Administration instead pushed for Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology which I think everyone can now agree was no where near ready.

    The average consumer, travels an average of 29 miles per day, thus even back then 100 mile range would have more than covered what was needed. Looking back, it seems like they missed out on having a 14 year lead over Tesla and I can imagine they are regretting this decision as the small automaker has taken a lead over the Big Three which is massively impressive.

    Let me know in the comments what you think of the EV1.