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!”