Electric vehicles were right there at the beginning of the automobile, and have never really gone away, although battery technology was never advanced enough to make them all that practical once gasoline internal-combustion engines were perfected. That’s changing now, but it’s also fascinating to look back at how we got to this point. Past EV attempts, no matter how limited in capability, contributed to the pool of knowledge that has gotten us to the point where battery-electric vehicles are practical, and even desirable today. And this classic EV bus, the 1979 Volkswagen Elektrotransporter, is one of those steps along the path to today.
Volkswagen of America purchased this van recently, and plans to restore it. Before that happens, VW will show off this delightfully dilapidated Elektrotransporter at the 2021 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, as part of this year’s historic electric vehicle theme.
The vehicle was part of a research program in the late 1970s by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Electric Power Research Institute, gathering real-world data about how large-scale EV use would affect electric power producers. Remember, the 1970s saw two oil crises, and everyone was scrambling to find solutions. Mainstream EVs wouldn’t pan out for decades, but this dark period was a catalyst for, among other things, fuel saving technologies like electronic fuel injection that would keep the internal-combustion engine relevant until EV tech became viable.
Not that the Volkswagen Type 2 ever posted incredible performance stats, but the awesomely-named Elektrotransporter is much more limited thanks to a massive array of heavy, low-capacity lead acid batteries. The 24-battery pack weighs a gargantuan 1,225 pounds, offering just 25 miles of range and a measly 48 mph top speed thanks to its 23 horsepower electric motor. For comparison with a vehicle with a similar battery pack weight, the 80 kWh battery in the Mercedes-Benz EQC weighs 1,433 pounds and provides an estimated 200 miles of range at normal speeds with 402 horsepower. How far we’ve come, right?