A major oil crisis occurred in 1979, a result of the Iranian Revolution. High levels of social unrest severely damaged the Iranian oil industry, leading to a large loss of output and a corresponding rise in prices. The situation worsened following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, which further added to the level of instability throughout the region.
During this time auto manufactures were scrambling to make their cars more fuel-efficient. A small company in Englewood Colorado made the decision to take advantage of the oil crisis by making an electric car.
In 1967, John Gould started his company: Unique Mobility. The company wanted to be a car manufacturer, sadly, however, they would only ever make 1 car. In 1979 Unique Mobility unveiled its first-ever electric car: the Electrek Uncar.
The Electrek sported a 32 horsepower General Electrics motor connected to a Volkswagen Fox 4 speed manual transmission. The Electrek was one of the first commercial vehicles to include regenerative braking. The car was powered by 16 6 volt batteries wired in series which ran into a custom motor controller designed specifically for the Electrek by Soleq, specifically by a man named Shunjiro Ohba. Ohba developed the controller with his experience in the railroad industry.
There is controversy over the number of Electreks produced, some sources say 70 some say over 100 however, after an interview with Craig Cambier, Vice President of Unique Mobility at the time of the Electrek, I learned that the number was more realistically closer to 35-50.
During my interview with Craig Cambier, my first question was “Why does it look the way it does” to which Cambier replied “[I’m] not sure who designed it but it was with aerodynamics in mind. The bodies were built in Englewood Colorado by hand using a form that fiberglass was layered on”
The Electrek was available for purchase for the price of $25,000, the equivalent of $82,000, adjusted for inflation. The advertised top speed was 75 mph, however, after talking to several Electrek owners, I learned that realistically you would never go faster than 65 mph. It had a range of 100 miles, but only if you drove slower than 45 mph. It has been described by Steve Cambier, son of Craig Cambier, as “Not fast at all” and he also added, “The transmission can be left in a single gear most times”. The Electrek came in 3 body styles, the 2+2, the panel van and the hatchback.
I was very interested in how a manual transmission on an electric car worked. How did you know when to upshift or downshift? I interviewed Electrek owner David Dunn about this. When asked the question “How do you know when to upshift and downshift” he responded “The car came with the original owner’s manual which gave recommended speed for each gear. 2nd gear was 0-20 mph, 3rd gear was 20 to 40 mph, and 4th gear was 40 mph and over. David Dunn commented that he starts in second gear, rarely using first.
Interestingly enough when Unique Mobility was developing the Electrek, their CEO was Ray Geddes, a former employee of Ford Motor Company. Unique Mobility had a few different backers but the strangest of all of them was Carol Shelby. Carol Shelby hoped that with Unique Mobility they could design an electric car that went from 0 to 100 and back to 0 in 10 seconds. While Shelby would not accomplish this goal with Unique Mobility he did help with the development of the Electrek.
In the early 80s, Unique Mobility started to turn its focus more towards brushless electric motors. Gene Fisher developed these electric motors with Craig Cambier. While the production Electreks used a General Electric drive train, Cambier stated that they retrofitted and Electrek with a Unique Mobility motor. Cambier claims the Unique Mobility motor made the car 200 pounds lighter. Unfortunately, the public never got this motor in their Electreks.
Parts for the Electrek were sourced from many different places. The transmission and suspension came out of a Volkswagon Fox and the Windscreen came from a Chevy Monza. The custom fiberglass body was placed on a custom frame. The interior featured a dash-mounted shifter with a radio built-in. The 2+2 and hatchback could seat 4 people 2 bucket seats in the front and rear bucket seats built into the car. The panel van only had 2 front seats with a large storage area in the back. There was a tunnel that ran the length of the car where the batteries were stored.
When I asked Craig Cambier about the reliability of the Electrek he had this to say “One day I was driving up 287 into Broomfield when I heard popping sounds and smoke coming out of the hood from the controller. Amazingly it still ran and I was able to drive it home. One of the power rectifiers shorted out and actually burned through part of the aluminum heatsink. I was able to repair it with a new part and aluminum filler. It just had a lot of redundant circuits.
Today in 2020 Unique Mobility still exists as a company. They create electric car parts for companies like BMW and Audi. A quick look on their website shows that they have no mention of the Electrek Uncar. It is a shame that this weirdly beautiful oil-crisis era electric car has been forgotten to history. The information about this car is far and few between. A dream of a company come to fruition, hand-built and refined by so many people. A car that lead to the advancements of Modern-day Electric Vehicles. This car was the first purpose-built EV.