The CitiCar by Sebring-Vanguard, Inc. of Florida, was a battery powered, 2-passenger runabout that for a short time captured the imagination of OPEC era America. This tiny cheese wedge-shaped shoebox on wheels would be plugged into the nation’s power grid from 1974 to 1982. It is hard to say if the CitiCar represented a bold vision of a utopian future, or a half-baked pipe dream based on yesterday’s technology. Either way, the CitiCar is an important but often forgotten stepping stone on the evolutionary path of the electric car.
Electrics: There at the Beginning
Immersed in today’s media-hyped celebrity culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, invented the electric car. Few are aware - and far less remember - that more than 100 years ago, at the turn of the last century, the preferred power source for the automobile’s future had not yet been decided. Steam, gasoline and electricity were battling for the hearts and minds of early adaptors of these new contraptions called cars. Back then, electricity actually had the edge. Early gas engines were tedious to maintain. They employed crank starters that were physically challenging and dangerous to use. Steam engines required significant technical skill to get them fired up and rolling, not to mention it was a bit disconcerting to know that you were sitting atop a pressurized boiler. Electrics were a snap to start, easy to operate, required little maintenance and were quiet. Indeed, in the year 1900, electrics outsold both rivals by a reasonable margin.
But electricity had its limitations. Even the best, most pricy versions could do no better than 50 miles on a charge. Speed, hills, cold, as well as the battery’s age, each ate into range to the extent that for most drivers, range anxiety began to kick in after just 20 miles.
By the end of the century’s first decade, the choice was down to two. Sure, steamed stalwarts like the Stanley puffed along for another decade. But that power source’s operation had proved too complicated and cumbersome for a typical driver to master.
The spark fizzled for electrics a few years later. With the 1912 Cadillac, GM’s Charles Kettering had finally developed a workable electric starter. Those difficult and temperamental hand cranks could now be a thing of the past. Kettering’s self-starter soon became widespread, and the internal combustion engine was on its way.
An Occasional Buzz
Over the ensuing half century, as the world embraced internal combustion, it looked as if the electric car would follow the path of its steam-powered counterpart, into the nether lands of automotive consciousness. It wouldn’t be until 1959 that a serious effort was made at an electric car come back. It was then that Emerson Radio and the Henney Body Company teamed up to build the Henney Kilowatt. Well, maybe it wasn’t that serious. The Kilowatt was based on the Renault Dauphine, used a 36V motor and could travel 40 miles on a charge. At about half the size of a typical American car while costing twice as much, it is not surprising that only 50 or so Kilowatts were sold. Most of those were to utility companies for research or promotional duties. Henney Motors was out of business by 1961.
A few years later, the maker of big power generators, Westinghouse Electric, produced a little box-shaped sedan called the Markette. As its name, and a range of just 35 miles implied, the Markette was made for quick jaunts to the market. An unknown but very small number of Markettes ever made it to the market.
The Seventies and the CitiCar
The 1970s was an automotive decade that many car enthusiasts prefer to forget. Sensuous styling, mixed with pavement melting horsepower, had made the previous age a golden one for the American automobile. Suddenly it had vanished, swept away by a quadruple blast of inflation, recession, fuel shortages and regulation. As automakers struggled to adapt their old ways of thinking to a new reality they were ill prepared to face, pessimism ran rampant. Innovation took a back seat to survival. The future of the car as we knew it was in question.
Out of the depths of this malaise, Bob Beaumont, a charismatic Chrysler dealer from Upstate New York, decided that the time was ripe to upend the American automobile industry. He sold his dealership and began working with small EV firms that converted gasoline cars into electrics. By 1973, Beaumont had founded Sebring-Vanguard Corporation, and was producing a tiny electric coupe that was not much more than a 4-wheeled scooter with a roof and a steering wheel.
Beaumont’s next EV was the 1974 CitiCar SV36. The SV36 was designed to be the cheapest, most basic vehicle one could make, and still meet NTSB standards to be called a car. Car? The SV36 was more like the missing link on the evolutionary progression from golf cart to automobile. Priced at just $2,700, it was powered by a 3.5hp motor and six 6-volt batteries. CitiCar claimed a 28mph top speed and 35-mile range. These numbers decreased rapidly if hills and/or cold weather were involved.
The following year, Beaumont introduced the CitiCar SV48. By adding two extra batteries, the car’s range and top speed were extended somewhat - though that was probably an either/or proposition. By 1976, CitiCars had actually become moderately appealing. Called the Hatchback Coupe, it now had real doors instead of curtains, a hatch accessing the rear storage shelf, and a new 6.5hp motor. A slightly longer version called the CitiVan was offered in 1977, but it was too late for Sebring-Vanguard. Despite these improvements, motor and battery technology was really not much more advanced than the EVs from 75 years earlier.
Bob Beaumont managed to sell over 2200 EVs over 4+ years before becoming over-extended. The company went bankrupt in 1978.
After the CitiCar
Sebring-Vanguard’s assets were soon purchased by a New Jersey company with plans to resume EV production. Because there was a cloud hanging over some of Bob Beaumont’s business dealings, the new owners changed the company name to Commuter Vehicles, Inc. The CitiCar was renamed the ComutaCar. Two thousand more ComutaCars were made into the 1980s. Some of the last several hundred vehicles were sold to the U.S. Postal Service. That relationship ended badly. Commuter Vehicles folded in 1982.
Bob Beaumont was back in the EV business in the early 1990s. This time his offering was a bit less austere. The estimated 20-25 Tropica electric sports cars he built in 1994 were Beaumont’s last EVs.
With over 4400 cars sold from 1974-1982, the CitiCar in its various names and forms would edge out Milburn Electric (just over 4000 cars from 1914-1923) and end up trailing only Detroit Electric (about 13,000 cars from 1907-1939) as the 20thCentury’s most popular electric car.
Bob Beaumont passed away in the autumn of 2011. That was only a few months before Tesla introduced its mass-produced Model S…and America’s perception of the electric vehicle was forever changed.
Copyright@2019 by Mal Pearson