From 1966 to 2016 – The Roots of Technology You Drive Today

Published January 1, 2016

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Fuel Cell and Electric Vehicles may seem like new technologies, but automakers had advanced prototypes 50 years ago. Check out what else was going in 1966.

It’s surprising to learn that what we now believe are advanced technologies have been in development for many decades. The concepts were typically sound, but the technologies of the time often weren’t able to deliver reliably, economically, or safely.

Check out and see what technologies were already in development exactly 50 years ago, in 1966.



[nextpage title=”The First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle: GM Electrovan”]

The First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle: GM Electrovan

The 1966 GM G-10 Electrovan is credited with being the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ever produced. Though fuel cells have been around since the early 1800’s, GM was the first to use a fuel cell to power the wheels of a vehicle. The fuel cell van program started when  modules became available with enough power density to propel a vehicle. Electrovan’s fuel cell powerplant supplied a continuous output of about 32 kilowatts and a peak output of 160 kilowatts. GM’s intent was to design a vehicle that could match a standard delivery van in acceleration, performance, and driving range.

Located beneath the floor were the 32 fuel cell modules interconnected by approximately 550 feet of plastic piping. Also part of the installation were cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen tanks and an electrolyte reservoir mounted behind the middle bench seat. About 45 gallons of potassium hydroxide were required to fill the modules, the piping and the reservoir. This electrolyte alone weighed 550 pounds bringing the van’s total weight to a hefty 7,100 pounds.

The Electrovan had a top speed of 70 mph, but ith all that weight onboard, could only accelerate from 0-60 MPH in 30 seconds. It had a range of approximately 150 miles. Because of safety concerns, the Electovan was only driven on GM company property.



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The First AWD Production Car: Jensen FF

The Jensen FF is a four-wheel drive GT produced by British car manufacturer Jensen Motors between 1966 and 1971. It was the first non all-terrain production car equipped with four-wheel drive – which preceded the Audi quattro by fourteen years, and the Subaru Leone by five years.

The transfer case used a limited slip differential that allowed the front and rear axles to have somewhat different speeds, eliminating scrub and inefficiency, while still providing the benefits of four wheel traction. As set up by Jensen, the car drove  63% of its power to the rear wheels, providing owners of rear wheel drive cars with a familiar feel. However, once a wheel started spinning, the system moved extra power to the other axle.



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The First Use of ABS on a Production Car: Jensen FF

Our 1966 Jensen FF is also the first production car to be fitted with an Anti-lock Braking System. Unlike today’s systems, which are electronic, the Dunlop Maxaret system (originally designed for aircraft) operated mechanically. It was a clever system for it’s time, fitting entirely within the wheel and weighing just over four pounds.

The system operated by measuring the relative speed of two spinning disks inside the hub. When a skid developed, the road wheel would stop, the rotating mechanism would be driven forward to press on a valve, which released brake fluid into a reservoir, lowering hydraulic pressure, and releasing the brakes. As soon as the road wheel started spinning again the valve was released and the brakes re-applied. The system could cycle about ten times a second, and could hold the brakes off for up to four seconds in total before the reservoir filled.



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First High Energy EV Battery: Ford Sulfur Sodium Battery

In 1966 Ford Motor Company unveiled a new battery technology intended to power a future EV: Sulfur-Sodium (as called NAS), which used a quantity of molten Sulfur and molten Sodium to provide the reaction. The batteries were highly efficient but operated at temperatures of over 500 F and were problematic in the case of an accident (more in a minute), not really well suited for use in passenger cars.

Having no other use for the technology, Ford sold the patents to Japanese electrical giant NGK, who built large NAS  batteries for power-generation facilities for use as  “buffers”. A fire at a power plant involving the batteries has called their use into some question, but they may well be the best choice for these applications. In the meantime the technology had advanced and is being used, for example, at wind farms. While they may never power a car, they could well be part of the chain that gets electricity to an EV.



[nextpage title=”National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act: All Manufacturers”]

National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act: All Manufacturers

New Federal safety regulations came into effect for the 1966 model year (the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act). It’s hard to believe now that  automakers opposed the implementation of these standards, Henry Ford II having been quoted as saying Ford said “ill-conceived Government regulation could result in considerable harm to the nation’s economy.” (Though in 1977 “Hank the Deuce” allowed that the first wave of NHTSA standards had advanced car and highway safety). The new requirements? Padded dashboards, front and rear outboard lap belts and white reverse lights all became mandatory in 1966.



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Early Electric Vehicle Development: Chevrolet Electrovair II

The Electrovair was developed by GM in 1964 as a conversion of the Chevrolet Corvair. The engine and transmission were removed and replaced with electric system components. It had a pioneering 90 HP AC induction motor (same type as in the Tesla) and a 450-volt silver-zinc battery. It was sufficient as a test vehicle but didn’t posess real-world capabilities. The Electorvair II was announced in 1966. It was more powerful than the Electrovair I with 115 hp and 532 volts. Its silver-zinc batteries enabled a top speed 80 MPH and a range 40-80 miles, which would put it at the low end (but within range) of current EV performance – 50 years later.



[nextpage title=”First Large FWD American Car in 30 Years: Oldsmobile Toronado”]

First Large FWD American Car in 30 Years: Oldsmobile Toronado

There had been plenty of small front-wheel drive cars built since WWII, but no large cars. There had been the Cord Model L-29 and 810/812, but that had been 30 years ago. Now it was clear that FWD was asking a great deal of the front tires: hold the car in a straight line, direct it throw a curve, provide most of the stopping power and all of the acceleration. On a tiny Mini Cooper, it’s not so much an issue but in a 4,366 lb. America car, it was a different story. Why front-wheel drive? Even at the time it was known a RWD car would accelerate faster, but a potential Toronado buyer wanted space, comfort, and safety. And in proving the concept the Oldsmobile Toronado laid the path not only for large FWD car, but for performance-oriented FWD cars as well, showing the front wheels could deliver on the driver’s needs.






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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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