When talking about the origin of the Chevrolet Volt range-extended plug-in vehicle, General Motors paints a picture that has top GM executives and engineers in a January 2006 meeting right after the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The gathering ended with a mandate to develop a concept plug-in electric vehicle that would debut at the 2007 Detroit show. It would be a “unique and profound concept vehicle that delivered eye-popping reduction in petroleum consumption.”
One year later, the Volt was the star of the 2007 show and has garnered more press than any new vehicle in GM’s 100-plus history.
Few would debate that the Volt concept was profound and when it arrives near the end of this year in production dress will deliver a substantial reduction in petroleum consumption. But unique? Well, not exactly.
On May 7, 1969, GM unveiled, for the nation’s press, a comprehensive display and demonstration of various possible forms of automotive power. Called “Progress of Power,” the show was held at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan and featured 26 vehicles. These included:
Two steam powered vehicles that were the first modern steam cars developed by the auto industry. One, called the GM SE-101, was a modified 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix, the other was a converted 1969 Chevelle Malibu sedan.
Three experimental special purpose vehicles were showcased that were designed to operate on a road system of their own in urban areas because of their size. Called the 512 series, they can best be described as slightly oversized enclosed golf carts. The powertrains for the two-seaters were a gasoline powered model, an all-electric model and the third a hybrid gasoline-electric.
The Electrovan, the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, made an appearance even though it had been introduced three years earlier and dismissed as too expensive and not practical.
Then there was the, WHOA!, what’s this? The Stir-Lec II was a second generation experimental hybrid vehicle that operated similarly to the upcoming Volt. Using an Opel Kadett small two-door sedan, the Stir-Lec II was equipped with an eight horsepower single cylinder Stirling external combustion engine (fuel is burned in a separate chamber from the engine). Installed in the rear cargo area, the small engine operated at a constant speed and drove an alternator to charge the 14 lead acid battery pack located in the engine compartment. Electricity from the batteries was directed to a 20-hp dc motor that turned the rear wheels.
Stir-Lec II served up a top speed of 60 mph, had a range of 25 miles at 30 mph on batteries alone and could travel 150 miles at 30 mph with the charging system running (limited by a 5-gallon fuel tank).
OK, the Stir-Lec couldn’t be plugged in to charge the batteries like the Volt can, but GM had that covered with the XP-883, a small mockup plug-in hybrid commuter car. I saw the car at GM’s exhibit at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane, Wash. At the time I was intrigued by its ability to operate in electric only mode, gas engine only or a combination of both—just like many of today’s hybrids.
Is it possible that during the early Volt development meetings someone visited GM’s vast archives and ran across the Stir-Lec II and XP-883? Of course that’s possible. And, if they read the press material from the Progress of Power media program, they would have found this GM philosophy statement: “General Motors is aggressively supporting electric propulsion because of it’s ultimate potential—driving flexibility, smoothness, quiet operation and theoretically higher efficiency.”
If GM had stayed the course of that “aggressive support,” maybe in 1997 they would have introduced a Volt-like vehicle instead of the EV1. And the new vehicle rolling off the assembly line later this year might be…?
This article was originally printed on PluginCars.com on June 7, 2010.