40 Years Before Tesla: America’s First EV Sports Car
Updated April 10, 2015
In 1958 an entrepreneur in California mated an electric motor with a fiberglass body and created the first EV sports car, 50 years before the Tesla Roadster.
And perhaps even more surprising are some of the concepts put forth by the developer, which must have sounded strange to the ears of 1958 America: narrow, low rolling resistance tires to increase range, recharging stations at shopping centers, and leasing batteries rather than purchase and replace. Each of these the ideas came from the mind of an entrepreneur with an eighth-grade education, George Lippincott, founder and president of the Nic-L-Silver Battery Company in Santa Ana, CA.
The Rise of Economy Cars
It easy to see the impetus behind the project. In the mid- to late-1950s American purchases of less expensive, more economical, second family cars were on a steep rise. Smaller cars like Studebaker Larks, Ramblers, and of course, Volkswagens began to appear next to larger Fords, Chevrolets, and Dodges in suburban driveways. Lippincott thought there might be a market for an EV as the second vehicle for American families.
The late 1950s were also the glory days of the kit car. There were talented designers in and around Art Center in Pasadena creating body designs, mechanics and fabricators with aerospace experience from WWII manufacturing high-performance parts, and a plethora of available chassis ranging from VW Type 1 to pre-war Ford RWD for use as the base of a project. Taping into the knowledge base, Lippincott recruited his own advisory team.
Kurtis Chassis Design
The prototype chassis came from Frank Kurtis, builder of Indianapolis 500 winning race cars and a manufacturer of sports cars himself. While Kurtis offered an off-the-shelf chassis to kit car builders based on the dimensions of pre-war Fords, Lippincott’s car would be a good deal smaller, so a downsized chassis was created.
Victress S4 Body
Lippincott then approached Victress, in North Hollywood, CA, perhaps the finest builders of fiberglass sports car bodies at the time. He asked them to create a unique exterior for the Kurtis chassis without having to invest the time and money in developing a mold. Art Center College of Design’s Hugh Jorgensen took charge of the project, which was based around the Victress S4, but mixed components from other Victress designs. The result is surprisingly attractive and cohesive.
Motive power came through two eight-horsepower electric motors, one driving each rear wheel via double chain. There was no transmission, gear selection being exactly the same as a golf cart, key in one position for forward, in the other for reverse.
First Prototype: Kurtis Chassis & Victress Body
The prototype was displayed at the 1959 Los Angeles County Fair to rave reviews from the public and media alike. Some of the motoring press had access to the prototype from time-to-time (based on publication dates) and all were favorable in their comments. There was one publicity photo taken of Lippincott in the prototype, and the car seemed to disappear from public view.
Alken D2 Based Prototype
With the initial prototype phase behind him, Lippincott turned his attention toward the production version of his EV, which he’d named “The Pioneer”. For cost reasons he broke off from Kurtis and Victress and purchased two D-2 bodies from Alken Corporation, of Venice, CA, intending to use a modified VW floorpan rather than the custom Kurtis chassis design.
Powering the motors were 12 4-volt lead-acid batteries, each with two cells, wired in series, capable of delivering eight hours at 235 Ampere-hours. Light pressure on the accelerator would engage 24V, more firm pressure 48V.
The Pioneer Brochure
Lippincott created a four-color brochure to market the Pioneer. Beyond its use as a second family car, he was also promoting it for use in local fleet and delivery uses. The brochure promised a range of 40 to 100 miles, with a full charge possible overnight. The price was targeted at just under $2000, and battery replacement cost was estimated at about $300. For reference, the MSRP for the significantly more substantial and better equipped 1959 Studebaker Lark was $1925.
There must have been push-back on his pricing as he told a newspaper reporter that the cost of the car would be $1600 and the batteries would be rented to the vehicle owner for $10 per month, He also told the reporter the car would carry four “very special” batteries that could cover 150 miles at 50 mph.
Lippincott continued to announce that production would begin shortly delivering ten Pioneers per day but no actual start date, factory location, investments in tooling or component parts ever seems to have been made. He told one newspaper he was still trying to arrange for funding. In the end total production of the first fiberglass-bodied EV sports car began and ended at three.
Whereabouts of the Prototypes
In 1966, Lippincott sold his company to Filter Dynamics, Inc., the three EV prototypes apparently included in the sale. In 1978 FDI sold the three vehicles as scrap. Of the two Alken D2 prototypes, the whereabouts of both are known: the red car is undergoing restoration on the East Coast (but with a Volkswagen engine) while the Blue Car is safely stored in California awaiting its own restoration. Of the original prototype, the car has, in essence, disappeared. With any luck, one day it will be located, and along with George Lippincott, each recognized for their significance to the development of the EV in the United States.
Categories: Production Cars