Is the Chevrolet Volt a Jolt from the Past?

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 on June 7, 2010.

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  • JamesDavis

    Isn’t that enough to just really tick you off? GM has had these electric vehicles for almost 40 years and just let them sit on the shelf. GM also has a hydrogen fuel-cell battery on wheels…it is sitting on the shelf too. That hydrogen fuel-cell battery was originally called “The Skateboard Car”. You can put any body design on it you want – any time you want. To charge this hydrogen fuel-cell battery…just pour water into it like you would gas in a gas tank.

    GM!!! You asked for a hand-out from the tax payers because you were having great financial troubles with your company. …Have you figured out yet why you are having financial problems?… If you haven’t, just look upon your shelf.

  • Samie

    I bit of a sad story with an obsession over muscle cars 50s-80s and later giant SUVs 90s to approx 2006. You add poor management and planning (Union & GM), one-track marketing strategies, protectionist regulations for the Big Three, and an oligopoly attitude on offering what they wanted to give you, are some of the reasons why we never seen a plug-in or EV make it to market (buying option) for GM.

    Skip to now & the Volt I argue was made for the bailout. This is a way to show politicians , regulators, and the public that GM is changing with the times.

    What really interests me is what GM decides to do with the Volt. Will the Volt go down like the first Insight? Do they concentrate on slowly making it a 25-32k sedan (upgraded Malibu) that blends EV technology with offering security of an extended range car or will the Volt become an all electric vehicle?

    Does GM invest heavily in engineering of the vehicle to make steady improvements like Toyota/The Japanese Gov. did with the Prius? Is this the new GM, or old? That means will we see wasteful marketing schemes with the Volt and little attention on improving vehicle performance and/or output?

    What is the role of the Volt in the emerging EV market? If given the chance, and if people let EVs compete in the marketplace we will see faster development in the electric segment of vehicles. This is something GM should take notice of and be ready to upgrade the Volt to meet new, more challenging consumer demands or else the EV will surpass the plug-in, at least at GM.

  • darelldd

    “To charge this hydrogen fuel-cell battery…just pour water into it like you would gas in a gas tank.”

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this is not possible. Yes, you can strip H2 out of water. But to do so requires a large input of energy. And by large, I mean 3-4 times as much energy as would be needed to actually power the car down the road directly with the energy that is instead being used to make H2 out of water.

    Water has no caloric value. Water is not a fuel. To make a fuel out of it requires massive amounts of energy first put into it.

    – Darell

  • JamesDavis

    Darell, you need to catch up on your current events. Norway has developed a battery to provide electricity to their remote communities and it is a hydrogen fuel cell battery, about the size of a family frig., and the cells inside the battery breaks down the water, like the acid in a lead cell battery does, and the hydrogen is collected on another cell and it produces electricity and transfers it out to the houses.

    This hydrogen fuel cell battery on wheels that GM bought from the designer works on the same principal that the Norway hydrogen fuel cell battery works on. Go on Scientific American Magazine and type in hydrogen fuel cell batteries and you will learn what is possible.

  • Dom

    Ok, quit bashing GM. This paragraph explains it why none of these ever made it to market:

    “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).”

    Even in 1969 who in this country would buy a car that could only go 25 miles at 30mph?????? I can’t imagine how far it could go at 60mph… the end of your driveway maybe?

    The steam powered vehicles sound interesting…

  • van

    The problem with all these early efforts toward electric cars was the battery capacity, It was not until about 2001 that Lithium battery technology became available. And even today, the current generation of Lithium batteries still do not contain enough energy, but Nissan’s next generation battery, the NMC lithium battery, for their Leaf, will provide enough energy to make electrics and plug-in hybrids like the Prius PHV and Volt viable. 2015 promises to be a wonderful year for ending our dependence on foreign oil, not that it will end that year, but it will the beginning of the end.

  • Thornhedge

    And how many of you would have bought these under powered jewel back in the 70’s? Be honest.

    Nothing happens in business until the sale is made.

  • BEW

    I think you may find the “world’s first fuel cell vehicle” was an Allis Chalmers tractor, in 1958.

  • Randy Steer

    James — Darrell is correct — you cannot fuel anything with water.

    Water is the OUTPUT of fuel cells, not the input. Fuel cells are almost always fueled with pure hydrogen (or in a few cases with a hydrogen-containing fuel where the hydrogen can be broken off), and then the hydrogen combines in the “cell” with oxygen from the air to produce water.

    Just as SPLITTING water apart into hydrogen and oxygen TAKES a lot of energy (again, Darrell is right), letting hydrogen and oxygen COMBINE to form water RELEASES a lot of energy, and that’s where the electricity from a fuel cell comes from.

    I don’t know the Norwegian system you refer to, but there are remote power installations in the U.S. that use fuel cells PLUS some other renewable energy source that can’t be counted on 24/7. For instance, you can have a wind-powered remote installation — there’s lots of wind in Norway — but what happens when the wind ISN’T blowing? If you size the wind turbine to have some extra capacity, you can use the surplus power to SPLIT water into hydrogen and oxygen (that process is called “electrolysis”) — then you can store those and recombine them in a fuel cell when the wind isn’t blowing. Completely clean and completely self-contained.

  • Samie

    Dom & van so am I wrong but didn’t we have the RAV4 EV & the EV1? If given the chance, are you saying battery capacity or cost reductions couldn’t have been improved upon? I don’t think that is the case, that is if customers in all states had the option to buy and GM and Toyota actually competed against each other for customers who wanted electric vehicles. Cost?, don’t people want overpriced (high company profit margin) luxury vehicles?

    It is legitimate to criticize GM. Where is GM’s full hybrid that rivals the Prius? Or developing the EV1 as a niche market car but instead they were too focused on building tanks. No one claims that the EV1 or the Stir-Lec II were perfect vehicles but neither were developed as market products, merely for the dazzling of politicians. Had the U.S. government backed EVs, reduced petroleum subsidies, and the Big 3 produced EVs I don’t think it is impossible for market forces to have improved upon the technology including the capacity of the battery. Example happening right now is the bottleneck in battery charges for smart phones but as more compete in this market including battery manufactures we will see unpredictable breakthroughs in this market. Possibly in a few years we will be moving to something beyond the lithium battery but you can’t predict this right now because one point in time theories are usually wrong that is if a diverse group of producers and consumers participate in the market and innovation is not squashed for market manipulation.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    You’re pretty much right. The old Lead-acid (Pb-A) batteries that were essentially the state-of-the-affordable-art prior to the 1990s was so heavy it was tough to make an EV that was competitive with an ICE. The advent of modern semiconductor power electronics, coupled with the greatly improved NiMH and Li-ion batteries have been enabling breakthroughs that have come around during the 1980 and 90s. Today’s technology makes EVs a solid technology option, if the political hurdles can be cleared.
    I would like to note that GM’s 2nd generation of Pb-A batteries for the EV1 showed about a 50% – 100% range improvement over their original 1st generation Pb-A batteries. There may even be a place for Pb-A in the future too.

  • veek

    -It would be nice if the Volt succeeded but…

    -Here are a few other “Jolts from GM’s Past” that you may want to remember: The Vega. The GM passenger car diesels. The Citation. The Saturn. The EV-1. The Sky/Solstice sports cars. The recent pseudo-hybrid Malibu and GM trucks.

    -Each name also gathered a lot of press, symbolized a revolutionary new GM Mark of Excellence, and was a promised sign that a New GM could compete on even terms with anyone on the planet. Each name proved a miserable flop, and some were arguably among the worst conceived and most disappointing cars ever built on such a large scale. Maybe they should have toned down the expectations.

    -Small and economical? Consider the Cobalt. The Cavalier. The Chevette. The Cimarron. Again, the Vega and the Citation and the Saturn. Consider the GM-built Toyota-designed Corolla clone (built at the first factory that Toyota ever had to shut down). They said they could do it. GM promised us they could build a small car with the best of them, but GM showed they would do nothing of the sort. GM can build a fine muscle car, a mean truck, a marvelous bloatmobile, a reasonably OK mid-size relatively low-tech sedan, a fairly good SUV. But a small economical car? To laugh.

    -Now, consider the Volt.
    Each time Wall Street brings us a new Bubble, they promise us “this time it’s different.” So they say. Well, history doesn’t always repeat itself, but you’d be foolish not to listen to it. As someone who has been disappointed again and again by past GM promises and “revolutionary new” products, I’d be way cautious about standing in line to buy another such promise from GM. Why does GM again raise our expectations so high? You can talk about the supposedly fail-safe virtues of the newly engineered battery cooling system, and how plug-in hybrids could theoretically save the planet, how the new GM workers and management have finally turned the corner, how GM has wisely stewarded the taxpayer’s subsidies, etc. You can do this until the cows come home. Yes, maybe This Time It’s Different, but … be sure to save enough money to buy the extended warranty. Sorry, but I’ve believed GM too many times before. No mas.

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