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Articles on Electric Vehicles

August 11, 2015
Paul Gipe

Delco-Remy’s DRIVE I Preceded GM’s EV1 to Same Fate


Fourteen years before General Motors (GM) introduced its EV1 and a quarter-century before it recalled and eventually destroyed nearly all of them, a GM division built an electric car only to see it suffer the same fate.

To this date, GM has yet to build a fully Electric Vehicle (EV) at its domestic assembly plants. Just as GM was late to the hybrid vehicle market with its Chevy Volt—a full decade behind Toyota’s Prius—the Detroit company is again late to the budding Battery Electric Vehicle market. GM is not expected to field a domestic EV until late 2016.

It could have been different.

In 1978, GM’s Delco-Remy Division in Anderson, Indiana built a two-passenger EV to impress the company’s Detroit managers with the division’s ability to build an EV if not the component parts of an EV.


Disclosure: I worked for Delco-Remy as a cooperative engineering student at General Motors Institute of Technology (now Kettering Institute) from 1968-1970. Though I visited the foundry while a student, I had no involvement in this project. I came across the photo of DRIVE I and Ted Vinson's account by accident when visiting the Madison County Historical Society.


At the time, Delco-Remy was a manufacturing power house, employing as many as 20,000 people in Anderson at multiple plants. That they could turn out an EV in a matter of months—even if from publicly available plans—is a testament to the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of its employees.

Today, there is nothing. The plants are gone as are the employees. All the buildings were removed, including the foundations.  All that remains in Anderson is the decaying hulk of the once proud Engineering Building.

Of course, GM is infamous for its colossal missteps. The demise of Delco-Remy—and Anderson, Indiana with it—is just part of the massive hollowing out of the industrial heartland of the US and Canada that occurred in the 1990s.

Below is Ted Vinson’s account of the short life of Delco-Remy’s DRIVE I. Vinson, the superintendent of Delco-Remy’s foundry at the time, explains that GM had embarked on an electric car program. He recalls that Detroit had assigned the project to its Chevrolet Division and the prototype cars were to be assembled at the Chevy plant in Van Nuys near Los Angeles.

Now 92, Vinson’s memory is sound. According to the June 1978 issue of Popular Science, GM’s Chevrolet Division was developing an EV with a range of 50 miles powered by 900 pounds of traction batteries. The car, dubbed the Electrovette, was based on a “chopped down” Chevette.

According to Vinson’s recollection, the test cars were delivered to GM supervisors, but performance was so poor that Detroit managers quickly canceled the program. And with that decision, Detroit dashed Delco-Remy’s dream of being picked to build GM’s first EV. 

Ted Vinson’s Account of Delco-Remy’s Electric Car

On March 2, 1978, at the annual meeting of the GM Accessory Division Managers, under Group Vice President Martin Caserio, the subject of GM’s Electric Car Program was presented.

During the discussion of the program, Mr. Caserio directed a comment to Mr. Ed Czapor, general manager of Delco-Remy Division. “Ed, of all the men here today, you should be most interested in the program since your division makes all the batteries for General Motors.

Back at Anderson the following seek at Mr. Czapor’s staff meeting, he quoted VP Caserio’s remark about what Delco Remy’s interest level should be in GM’s electric car program.

A few days after VP Caserio’s “comment” to Mr. Czapor filtered down to plant managers and staff engineers, a process engineer showed his boss, the chief process engineer, a copy of Popular Science Magazine. It had the directions and plans to build an electric car in “your garage.”

The chief process engineer showed the Popular Science magazine to the foundry plant manager and proposed that they build an electric car from the plans in the book. Then, when Mr. Caserio arrived at the Anderson Airport for his scheduled June meeting, Mr. Czapor would drive the electric car to the plane and take Mr. Caserio for a ride, showing him Delco-Remy’s interest in GM’s electric car program.

At this time, I was superintendent of the foundry. My plant manager showed me the plans in Popular Science and asked if our pattern makers could build the electric car’s body from the plans. Without hesitation, I said the pattern makers could build anything!

The project was started. The Delco-Remy Process Shop would build the chassis of the car and the foundry pattern makers would build the car’s body.

The Process Shop went to the junkyard and found—as suggested in the magazine—a Honda AZ coupe “hulk” and took it to their shop. It was necessary to contact the Texan who had authored the feature and drawn the plans in Popular Science because he had “patented” the control system that wedded the batteries, motor and transmission together electrically.

I admit that I had a “moment” when a wagon rolled into the foundry pattern shop with six huge 4-foot by 6-foot 1-inch thick sheets of stryrofoam, a large roll of glass cloth and five 1-gallon cans of resin. I remembered that I said that my pattern makers could build anything.

It as fortunate that a process toolmaker, who made fiberglass boats, showed the pattern makers how to glue the Styrofoam pieces together.

In the first week of May, a 6-foot tall Texan wearing a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots arrived with the control box for the car. The second week of May, the process shop toolmakers rolled the car’s chassis into the pattern shop.

The pattern makers attached the car’s body—complete with headlights tail lights, bumpers, windshield, floors, windows—with a transom running from the car’s front between the bucket seats to its rear, to hold four batteries and a box to hold another four batteries over the rear axle.

[Editor’s Note: This is the same arrangement now used in Chevrolet’s Volt.]

The car was rolled out of the pattern shop into a van for its trip to the Anderson Airport.

At an airport hangar, the car was given four coats of bright red-orange paint and the eight heavy-duty, calcium-lead batteries were installed.

“Black strips” were put on the car’s hood and the car’s name—DRIVE 1—was placed on its side (DRIVE represented Delco-Remy Investigative Vehicle Electric One).

On cue, June 1, 1978, VP Caserio’s plane landed at the Anderson Airport.

Mr. Czapor drove the electric car to the plane, escorted him to the car and give him a 55 mph ride down the long east-west runway and back to the waiting car that took them to their meeting at Mr. Czapor’s office.

No one ever told me what the conversation was during Mr. Caserio and Mr. Czapor’s ride in the electric car but I do know that the week following the Vice-President’s visit, Delco-Remy received a directive from Detroit to destroy the electric car and cut it into small pieces.

That was the end of Delco-Remy’s electric car that never was.


For more on GM, Delco-Remy, and EVs, see

The History of the Delco-Remy Division of General Motors: Moment in Time (Includes a photo of DRIVE I and a photo of parts from the vehicle.)

The History of the Delco-Remy Division of General Motors: Propulsion Systems for Electric Vehicles (EV components for GM’s EV1.)

Electric Car Notes by Paul Gipe 05: Chevy Volt Test Drive (For my take on the Chevy Volt.)

 


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