Electric cars have been around for longer than most people realize with certain examples dating back all the way to the late 1800s. These alternative power vehicles have come a long way to where they are now, but there were more than a few bumps in the road that helped them earn the reputation of being oddly designed cars with a very short range and this is one of them.
The Sebring-Vanguard Citicar was a product of the OPEC Oil Embargo of the 1970s as one man’s vision of the future. That man was Bob Beaumont who was already entrenched in the car business running a Chrysler dealership in upstate New York when he decided that gas-powered cars were killing city life and he had to do something about it. Inspired by the size and shape of a golf cart, Beaumont’s goal was to create as lightweight of a car as possible while still adhering to National Transportation Safety Board standards and leaving minimal impact on the environment.
After his initial EV Coupe was unsuccessful and the NTSB changed their rules for low-production automobiles, Beaumont focused on a new creation dubbed the Citicar. Designed to be a simple, compact, and cheap car for city commuting, Beaumont aspired for the Citicar to lessen the strain of the automobile on the environment with its electric powertrain. Designed only for traveling about city centers and short commutes to work, Beaumont hoped to sell the car to people wanting to save money on rising gas prices and cut down their impact on the environment from driving everyday.
The Citicar was offered with several different battery variants during its lifecycle. This specific example is an “SV-48” model meaning it has a 48v battery pack with 3.5hp, originally costing $2,390 in 1975 (~$11-12k today). When it came to performance, the Citicar was… lacking to say the least. You can’t drive 55 in the Citicar, and not because of speed limits at the time, but rather because the car tops out at around 38-44mph. However, top speed wasn’t much of a concern as the car was never intended to be used on the highway. The car would do 0-25mph (yes 25mph) in 6.2s and weighed a total of ~1,250lbs (partly thanks to its ABS Plastic body), so it was lightweight, but far from nimble.
The Citicar did not include A/C, which forced buyers to find alternative ways to beat the heat such as the aftermarket fan installed in this model.
The Citicar’s eight 6-volt flooded lead-acid batteries took about 6 hours to reach a full charge which gave it a range of ~40 miles. It truly was an experiment in minimalism for the everyday car as the Citicar did not come with A/C or even roll-up windows, instead featuring clear plastic panels that you with metal slats you have to drop into the door frame any time you wanted to close up the interior. Although the car’s intended use was for short drives throughout the city, these limiting factors diminished public opinion of the Citicar and made it a hard sell against Detroit’s finest.
Beaumont was able to sell approximately 2,100 Citicars up until 1975 when a not-so-raving review by Consumer Reports came out rating the Citicar “Not Acceptable” after a brake failure (along with poor acceleration and shoddy steering), which “pulled the plug” on the operation and dashed any chance of future sales. Although Beaumont defended his creation, even once by taking a baseball bat to the car to demonstrate the sturdiness of the body, his company was short lived and failed to capture enough of the automotive market to sway public opinion on the benefits of the electric car. When the oil risk came to an end, gas prices normalized which lead to plummeting sales for the Citicar and Beaumont was forced to sell the assets of Sebring-Vanguard in 1978 to pay off of debts and an inevitable fine from the NTSB.
After his try at reinventing the modern car, Beaumont would go on to lobby for federal funding on the research of electric vehicles and even try his hand again at selling an electric vehicles with the Tropica, which was an electric roadster targeted towards countries with warmer climates. Unfortunately, Bob Bueamont passed away in October of 2011 before he could see the resurgence of electric vehicles on the road today. However, his Citicar remains is an iconic stepping stone in the history of electric vehicles as they’ve re-attained mainstream popularity.
This 1975 Citicar is currently on loan at the HVA National Laboratory from the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles which showcases Pennsylvania’s transportation history with their collection housed in the former factory of the Boyertown Auto Body Works.