By Chris Landers
It was sometime in the mid-’60s when Bob Beaumont had the epiphany that led him to become the largest manufacturer of electric cars in U.S. history. He was pumping gas outside his Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in upstate New York, saw the fumes from the gas hit the air, and said to himself, “This is ridiculous.”
“I thought, There’s got to be a better way than to pump this stuff out of the ground and piss it away in gas tanks,” Beaumont says, sitting at the kitchen table in his Columbia home. “That thought stuck with me.”
It stuck with him long enough that, in 1968, he heard about a guy making electric cars in Detroit out of converted Renaults. Beaumont sold the dealership and headed west to join in, but after eight or nine months, he lost faith in the project. “I thought, This seems crazy, too.”
A golf cart company in Georgia caught his eye. Club Car was making electric golf carts that, Beaumont thought, could be used on the streets with a few modifications. The company built a few to his specifications, and the effort was enough to interest a backer in Florida, who set Beaumont up with a plant in Sebring, Fla. In 1974 the CitiCar began rolling out of the factory, and Beaumont’s Sebring Vanguard Motors became the sixth-largest car manufacturer in the country. (It was a distant sixth–Sebring Vanguard produced some 2,600 CitiCars over three years, while No. 5, Checker, produced almost twice as many in 1976 alone. AMC, the smallest of the big four, made over 200,000 cars that year.)
His creation was homely–a wedge-shaped contraption with plastic panels on an aluminum roll cage that went around 26 mph and got between 30 and 40 miles between charges–but his timing was good. The 1973-’74 oil crisis has ended earlier that year, and the idea of an electric car appealed to drivers who had been through gas rationing and long lines at the pumps. The CitiCar required an eight-hour charge, and the company offered an optional extension cord to plug it in.
The Sebring plant was churning out as many as 10 CitiCars a day, Beaumont says, with two guys on the road setting up dealerships. They developed a truck that could carry 16 of the little cars to the dealers, but once they were there, they just sat–26 mph was too slow. (“People got tired of looking in their rearview mirrors,” Beaumont says.) Vanguard recalled the cars, added two batteries, making the top speed 38 mph. That made all the difference, and the cars started to sell, at a cost of less than $3,000.
“Everybody heard about what we were doing in Florida,” Beaumont remembers. “And they came flocking to us like we were the salvation of the world.”
Between 2,000 and 2,600 of the cars were sold–Beaumont remembers the number as 2,206. “It seems like half of them are still on the road,” he says, and he keeps in touch with the CitiCar enthusiasts who occasionally seek him out. There are active online owners’ communities for both cars, and Beaumont sells copies of the out-of-print book on electric cars by Barbara Taylor, The Lost Cord.
For a while, he says, things were going well, but in October 1975, the company was dealt a blow by Consumer Reportsmagazine, which reviewed both the CitiCar and the ElCar, an Italian competitor. The first paragraph of the article ends, “we found major safety and operating problems,” and it goes downhill fast from there. The CitiCar was “the noisiest vehicle we have tested this year,” the magazine wrote. “Foolhardy to drive . . . on any public road . . . acceleration was slow . . . steering was very quick and unpredictable . . . braking tests went no better . . . felt as if it had no springs at all.” The closest the magazine could muster to a compliment was, “our CitiCar never left us completely stranded during the time we owned it, although there were some anxious moments,” and a tester’s diary ends, “finally roll down driveway. Driver and batteries both drained.”
“They called our car everything but a suicide car,” Beaumont says. “Unsafe this, that, and the other, because they were comparing our 1,100-pound car to the big cars. All of the sudden everything stopped. . . . That article basically pulled the plug on us.”
Beaumont tried to fight the perception that the cars were unsafe. When the transportation department in Lansing, Mich., threatened to ban the cars, he boarded a plane with a baseball bat and gave a demonstration of just what the car could take. When he was done beating it up and the car showed no ill effects, he says he offered to take his bat to a nearby Ford. The owner declined, but the ban on CitiCar was lifted.
Memories of the gas crisis proved short, however, and rather than the radical solution provided by the CitiCar, drivers turned to cheap, fuel-efficient cars from Japan. That, coupled with the safety issues outlined by Consumer Reports, proved too much for the little CitiCar.
Financial backers disappeared, sales dried up. Eventually the company followed suit, declaring bankruptcy in 1977. Beaumont still maintains that the CitiCar was never meant to compete with the larger, stronger gasoline vehicles of the day. It was for short hops around town and commuting short distances to and from work. He was creating an entirely new kind of vehicle.
“Picture a golf cart in your head,” he says. “Take that same golf cart, increase the size of the motor, add a couple more batteries, equip it with all the lights and things you need, and let that car serve millions of people to go back and forth to work. . . . I thought we’d flood the world with these things–in Japan, where the congestion is terrible, in Indonesia, in Europe. . . . I was convinced that this was the way to go.
“I still say, if there isn’t room for a little 1,000-pound or 1,100-pound CitiCar all over the world, then something’s got to be wrong,” Beaumont says. “I was really pissed at the amount of oil that we were just pissing away into the pumps. And I still am. . . . I can’t believe how nobody’s done this.”
There have been attempts, mostly by hobbyists, to revive the electric car. It is a technology, it seems, that is always on the horizon. The 2006 documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? focused on General Motors EV1, popular among the 800 people who leased the electric car in 1996-’99, but recalled and destroyed by the manufacturer. Some of the technology from the EV1, according to the company, will be incorporated into the Chevy Volt, an electric car capable of using gasoline as an alternate power source, which GM says will be out in 2010.
Beaumont had one more shot at his electric dream car, but it came in the sleeker, sportier frame of the Tropica, a roadster he produced with Renaissance Cars in Florida in the mid 1990s. Jim Muir, who designed the CitiCar, did the styling for the Tropica as well, but as Car and Driver magazine put it in a fairly glowing 1994 review, “This time, instead of milk cartons and doorstops, Muir looked for inspiration at Dodge Vipers and Shelby Cobras. The shape of the car he created is captivating.”
“It was a beautiful car,” Beaumont says of the sleek and rounded two-seater. “A real looker.”
This time the cars were more expensive (contemporary accounts vary from $12,000 to $17,000), and Car and Driver‘s test model went 57 mph and lasted for 38 miles; later models claimed a 60 to 80 mile range on an eight-hour charge. The cars had no top but a waterproof interior. The magazine predicted a market for the car as a fun runabout rather than a full-time commuter. About two dozen of the cars were produced for showrooms, but by 1995, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Renaissance Cars stopped forecasting a delivery date. In ’96, it went into receivership and was sold to a group of investors, who continued under the name Zebra, then Xebra, before finally folding quietly. Only 25 Tropicas were made, and fewer found their way to the road. On July 17, a car advertised as “number 17 of 18” sold on eBay for $15,900. The Tropica, like the CitiCar, has a devoted following.
Beaumont’s dream of a cheap electric car to serve millions isn’t dead, although it may have come to him way too early. In 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Board created a category for low-speed vehicles, more commonly called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles–basically a loophole that allows the use of golf carts to run errands. The category allows for the road use of a small, light vehicle with a maximum speed of 25 mph. The current largest manufacturer of electric cars, India-based Reva, has sold around 2,500 cars, according to a recent Automotive World article. The newest Revas claim a top speed of 53 mph and a range of 80 miles (with the air conditioner off). According to the company’s web site, Reva is now testing the U.S. market.
The big U.S. manufacturers are also in the game: Sales of gasoline-electric hybrids continue to climb, according to the Green Car Congress, which tracks developments in alternative vehicles, while sales of SUVs continue to fall, and Chevrolet plans to introduce the Volt in 2010.
As for Beaumont, he has moved on. After the Tropica, he moved to Columbia and operated a car dealership (selling gasoline-powered cars). At 76, he uses an oxygen tube to help him breathe, although it’s long enough to let him go out to the porch for a smoke. He’s looking to the future, past the electric cars someone else will build, toward solar energy. “When you think about how much power hits the ground every day from the sun,” he says, “it’s awesome.” Interest in alternative fuels comes and goes, he says, with the rise and fall of gas prices, but he thinks it will take more. “Comes the day the oil begins to trickle, then you’ll see a massive effort on the part of government and industry to get the ball rolling on alternatives. They say there’s a big effort right now, but I don’t know if you can believe it.”
Of his own attempts, he calls them “One man’s effort to see a mission through, and hope when I finished I would’ve made an impact, a little impact, on the world.” He laughs. “The only impact I’ve made is 25,000 hits on Yahoo, but at least my little history will be there. . . . At 76, I’ve seen all of it. And if you offered me $10 million, I wouldn’t do it again”–he looks down at his cigarette, then hedges– “I don’t think.”
This story first appeared in the Baltimore City Paper.