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Interview

1974 Sebring Vanguard Citicar

By Jeremy Wilson

At the turn of the century, electric vehicles were outselling gasoline and steam cars combined, and no wonder. Gasoline cars were smelly, hard to start, deafeningly loud, and their transmissions were difficult to shift. Steam cars were heavy, dangerous, required frequent water refills, and could take the better part of an hour to warm up. Battery powered cars, on the other hand, were quiet, smooth, and relatively easily driven by men and women.

Over the next decade, sales of both electric and gasoline cars increased--but gasoline car manufacturers gobbled up market share as their customers began taking longer trips. Falling fuel prices and mass production put gasoline-powered cars within reach of the general public and by 1935 the electric car industry was virtually dead.

In 1974 electric car production experienced a brief resurgence, notably with the CitiCar (manufactured in Sebring, Florida) and the Elcar (by Zagato of Milan, Italy).

An excellent example of a 1974 CitiCar was recently displayed at the Columbia River Concours d’Elegance in Vancouver Washington. Showing the car (for its owner) was Bill Price, the vehicle’s restorer over the last five years.

“My neighbor bought the car seven or eight years ago,” said Price. “It was in a woman’s garage and she wanted to get rid of it. There were two or three of them left from a dealership and my neighbor acquired this one.”

A background in electrically-driven equipment led Price to begin restoring the CitiCar.

“It was sitting in my neighbor’s shop and the tires were flat. I said, ‘Let’s get going on it,’ and he said, ‘It’s electric, nobody is interested in it,’ so I talked him into letting me take on the project. I started by getting it back on its wheels and fixing the brakes. Pistons were not available for the brakes so we had to manufacture them--and other parts--ourselves.”

The CitiCar had only 800 miles on it making the restoration easier as the mechanical parts did not have much wear.

“We rebrushed the motor and turned the commutator and made sure it was true. The controller had some wiring problems but they were a minor issue. We replaced the battery cables and installed new batteries, which have been in place for five years.”

The CitiCar’s body was in good shape but the front of the vehicle was weathered.

“The paint is original except for the nose piece,” said Price. “We prepped it and painted it with two stage paint. And I put a new windshield in it because the old one was sun damaged.”

The instrument panel has only two gauges: a speedometer and a volt meter.

“The volt meter tells us what the battery voltage is in the pack,” said Price. “It drops off as the batteries run down. You get used to it--like the fuel gauge in a gas-powered car.”

This CitiCar is powered by eight six volt, deep-cycle golf cart batteries. It will cruise at 35 miles per hour and go about 20 miles between charges. The eight batteries are arranged in two packs, each supplying 24 volts. When the accelerator pedal is depressed, a series of micro switches are activated. The first runs the packs in parallel for a total of 24 volts but decreases power to the motor with a NiChrome ribbon resistor, taking the car up to 11 mph. The second switch closes a solenoid that bypasses the resistor, taking the car up to 23 mph. The third switch runs the packs in series, for a cruising speed of 35 mph.

Bill Price was in the industrial service business for 45 years, much of that at Hyster Company, so he has plenty of experience with electric motor controllers. He’s looking forward to upgrading the Citicar with an Alltrax solid state controller and a modern motor.

“I’m hoping one day to go to a three-phase AC vector control motor and that will be a real benefit. It will be faster with just the motor speed itself. It will turn 3000 RPM (as opposed to 2000 RPM now) and it will be at a higher voltage.”

At this point, you might be wondering what it would be like to drive a CitiCar. In one magazine article the reviewer felt cramped, claiming that the rear-view mirror was just inches from his right ear. But Bill Price has a different take.

“It handles like skateboard! It has instant steering and the brakes are quite comfortable without any power assist. It has little 4.5 inch brake drums which work surprisingly well. The cars came from the factory with disk brakes, but this one came with drum brakes which I believe are better. It was put together well because of the brake and the motor capabilities.”

And indeed, the Sebring Vanguard CitiCar quality is an obvious cut above today’s similarly-sized, imported Neighborhood Electric Vehicles.

“It’s made in the USA,” said Price. “It’s got a lot to be proud of!”

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History and Production Notes

Surprisingly, the CitiCar was not a knee-jerk response to the 1973 Oil Crisis. The CitiCar was the brainchild of Robert G. Beaumont, who started thinking about an electric alternative car in the mid-‘60s. According to a 2008 Baltimore City Paper article titled Car of the Future, Beaumont recalls having an epiphany. He was pumping gas outside his New York Chrysler dealership and noticed the fumes going into the air.

“I thought, there’s got to be a better way than to pump this stuff out of the ground and piss it away in gas tanks.”

After selling his dealership (and experiencing a subsequent misadventure with a company that was converting Renaults to battery power), Beaumont became interested in Club Car, a manufacturer of electric golf carts. From Car of the Future:

Beaumont thought [the carts] could be used on the streets with a few modifications. The company built a few to his specifications, and the effort was enough to interest a backer in Florida, who set Beaumont up with a plant in Sebring, Florida. In 1974 the CitiCar began rolling out of the factory, and Beaumont’s Sebring Vanguard Motors became the sixth-largest car manufacturer in the country.

An article published in New York Magazine (1979) titledThe Little Car That Could But Didn’t,” describes the mercurial rise and fall of the company:

The first CitiCars rolled off the assembly line in the spring of 1974, at the height of the national gasoline shortage, and the timing couldn’t have been better. By June of the following year, the rapidly growing little company had a staff of 100 employees turning out 150 to 200 cars per month--all of them spoken for by customers eager for a car whose entire ‘tank’ could be filled with 45 cents of electricity from any 110-volt home outlet. But then Consumer Reports stepped in and pulled the plug in its October 1975 issue...

Consumer Reports criticized the Government for exempting electric cars from “certain” federal safety standards, saying a 30-mph crash would imperil the lives of persons inside the “tiny, fragile, plastic-bodied vehicles.” Although the “certain” safety standards were not implemented for any 1975 automobiles--they were only proposed amendments--the damage was done and CitiCar sales immediately fell by 75 percent. In December of that year Sebring Vanguard halted the production of CitiCars.

At Beaumont’s request, Consumer Reports printed a correction. At the same time, however, it stated that in a second test, the brakes had failed in a panic stop. In July, 1977 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration alleged the CitiCar had brake defects and other minor problems. It threatened to fine the manufacturer $800,000 and force a recall of every CitiCar on the road. The combination of the Consumer Reports article and the NHTSA threat put Sebring Vanguard out of business.

Ironically, as of 1979, 1500 CitiCars were still on the road and had logged 15 million miles without a single fatality.

A company named Commuter Vehicles Inc. purchased the defunct Sebring Vanguard Motors and began building a larger and more powerful electric car named the CommutaCar (available in both coupe and van models).

PRODUCTIONNOTES Production Notes...

Sebring Vanguard Motors produced 2206 CitiCars from 1974 to1977 (according to Robert G. Beaumont).

Commuter Vehicles, Inc. produced over 4,000 CommutaCars from 1978 to 1982.

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