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BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars

The Lost Cord: A Storyteller’s History of the Electric Car

by Barbara Taylor

Told for the first time: the story of Bob Beaumont and his 1973 CitiCar — its triumph and tragedy in the gasoline-dependent automotive world; and his second remarkable attempt in 1993 — which almost succeeded — to bring a modern, affordable, and safe electric car, the Tropica, to the marketplace.

* * *

What kind of man puts together an electric car company that — for one stellar moment — becomes the sixth largest manufacturer of automobiles in the United States?

How do you convince a Cadillac dealership, a Ford dealership, a Chrysler dealership, a Volkswagen dealership to sell a micro-sized plastic car that looks like an electrified cheese wedge in every state in the United States? And 240 agree?

Who buys these shockingly red, yellow, or orange cars to stow in their airplane, load on their yacht, tow behind their Winnebago — or drive as their sole automotive transportation?

Only one man has ever tried to climb so high — not once, but twice — in providing America with an alternative transportation vision. Who is he?

Meet Bob Beaumont, owner of Sebring-Vanguard who built the CitiCar in the seventies, and attempted a comeback with a high-tech Tropica roadster in the nineties. The man who had the chutzpa to look Detroit in the eye, gamble the comfortable niche he had as a successful Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in upstate New York, and go toe-to-toe with the Federal Government regulatory giants.

Beaumont’s first attempt was a souped-up Club Car golf cart. He was thumbing through the pages of his golfing magazine one day, and saw the ad for an electric-powered golf cart. The minute I saw it, Beaumont remembers, I knew I had the whole answer to electric car transportation.

Minutes later, he was on the phone to the Vice President of Marketing.

Mr. Balfour! he boomed into the mouthpiece that day. Your golf cart could be a testbed for an electric commuter car capable of transporting two people in an urban or suburban environment. That could mean millions of sales.

A year later, feeling like Ford and Edison, Lewis and Clark, Orville and Wilbur, he joined a line of automotive inventors hoping to revolutionize the way the world turns its wheels on asphalt.

His Vanguard — an enhanced golf cart with four aluminum poles holding up a canopy — made its dramatic debut crawling through New York City’s dank Holland Tunnel to Wall Street, where it was met by the incredulous stares of the world’s power brokers.

Shortly thereafter, he pitted his Vanguard against the biggest hill he could find. With a testing lab monitoring the ascent, the car slaved and strained its way — slower and s-l-o-w-e-r and s-l-o-o-o-w-e-r — up the hill. Beaumont said, I wouldn’t have treated a dog that bad.

When the car dragged its gasping batteries over the crest of the hill, Beaumont hooted with glee, It DID it! In his mind, the modern electric car revolution was born.

Now Beaumont had a car — well, sort of a car. The question was how to market it? Here, every previous and many subsequent entrepreneurs failed.

They knew the EV business; but they were clueless-in-Detroit about how to sell an car. Beaumont lived, breathed, and thrived, on auto business. The quintessential car man, he knew deals and dealers.

He knew the lingo, the game, the players. And he had worked his way up from a lowly lot boy in his youth to owning a major dealership in Kingston, New York by his mid thirties.

When Beaumont talked, people caught the dream.

Associated Press carried the story; then Reader’s Digest . One day, industrial designer Jim Muir read a clip about the car and saw immediately — it was God-awful ugly. He called Beaumont; scheduled a meeting, unveiled a slick eye-catching electric cheese-wedge wrapped in football-helmet-strength plastic — and Beaumont walked onto the Florida factory floor and halted production.

Within months, the CitiCar — two feet shorter than the VW Beetle — was born, midwived in the middle of an Oil Embargo. Americans panicked about their fuel-dependent autos. The media found their way to Beaumont: Newsweek, People Magazine, Time, Popular Mechanics . And TV crews.

And commentators. Beaumont and his electric CitiCar hit sound-bite heaven. People queued in line to buy. Dealerships spread across the United States.

Eventually, nearly 2,300 would be shipped — not to back-alley wannabe EV hobbyists — but to prestigious car dealerships. Soon, the perky little car was on America’s showroom floor.

The car captured the public’s imagination. Millionaires lined up to finance Beaumont’s dream. The U.S. Government opened its coffers. A major battery company, and a multinational conglomerate staked this one-man-dream of an automotive revolution.

Soon Congress came calling. They wanted Beaumont as an expert witness.

This was the man who was selling a car that listed — as extras — a speedometer with odometer, a spare tire, a radio, a heater, an extension cord, and windows. The original CitiCar came with plastic flaps.

Owners took perverse pride in their vehicle with such comments as: Meets basic transportation in the truest sense of the word; You pull out of a parking space, gun it full speed, and a VW runs over you; People want comfort, ease, style, and speed. None of these exist in the CitiCar.

It was a feat of imagination, one not lost on the U.S. Government. And Beaumont was quick to drive the philosophical point home.

Seeking some temporary safety exemptions from the newly created National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he extolled for the first time on paper his full vision about the need in America for electric-powered transportation.

The staggering waste of oil, he wrote, results in millions of steel hulks having to be sent to crushers or winding up in junk yards polluting our landscape. The gas car utilizes less than 20 percent of the actual energy contained in a gallon of gas. America consumes 320,000,000 gallons of gas per day at $1.25 a gallon. This represents a $400,000,000 daily expenditure of which 80 percent, or $320,000,000 a day vanishes into thin air.

On a yearly basis, we destroy forever 11,500,000,000 gallons of oil which is the entire production of Prudoe Bay in only four years.

It did no good. His car was eventually tested by Consumers Union, and rated grossly unacceptable. In a scathing …, with almost ruthless language, the October 1973 issue of Consumers Reports seemed to go out of its way to condemn the non-auto car. Words like imperil the lives, sulfuric acid pouring from ruptured batteries, foolhardy to drive, dismal to virtual uselessness, peppered the three-page report.

America at that time believed — without questioning — Consumers Union. Shipments were stopped midway across the United States and turned back. Dealers panicked; CitiCar owners flooded the telephone lines.

To compare the totally new, electric-powered CitiCar against steel-frame-heavy, gasoline vehicles was like pitting a poodle against a race horse contending the two cars were alike because they both had four wheels.

Soon, Beaumont could not find an open door anywhere. Consumers Union effectively turned his transportation revolution off. Oil was again plentiful, and America continued its daily traffic-clogged commute to work, belching four-fifth’s of the world’s finite oil resource into airborne sewage.

The electric car dream was …, and Beaumont was bankrupt. Eventually the Government, scared by the Oil Embargo, enacted legislation to research and built thousands of electric cars. But Beaumont was never even considered.

Congress wanted an electric look-alike to the gasoline car. It refused to explore the possibility that America was truly ready for the niche car, a commuter-specific vehicle.

In typical bureaucratic overkill, the U.S. Government paid $13.5 million dollars for two electric cars, eventually eliminating maintenance manuals, cost analysis, durability testing, reliability, and safety testing to avoid disastrous cost overruns. Beaumont had offered them 500 cars for 1.7 million dollars.

BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars

He was turned down.

No one really wanted an electric car.

Two decades passed. Beaumont continued in the automobile business, setting up a successful used car lot near Baltimore. Then the urge came to try again.

California was talking zero-emission vehicles; pollution was in the news again; and Beaumont still had the dream.

He assembled some of the old players, and using computerized design, Jim Muir and he hammered out a new design for the Tropica . Beaumont laid down four unalterable criteria: The car had to be good-looking, affordable, better than any other EV built thus far, and safe.

The whole automotive world was responding to the gauntlet California had thrown down: build zero-emission cars by 1998 or don’t bother to cross our state line. Iacocca once called California the mirror of the future; that mirror was now reflecting an electric car image.

General Motors, following a well-trod historical path of titillating the public with EV prototype cars — and gaining massive free publicity from the press — now entered the fray with a coupe named, ironically, Impact.

For a moment, once again, it seemed Beaumont might grasp — finally — the holy grail that so many had sought. He had a $17,000 car that drew raves even from the tight-mouthed Car Driver magazine. From the first drop of the accelerator pedal, it was clear that lightweight, topless, purpose-built electric cars can run rings around gas production cars converted to electric.

It had the ingredients of a great-handling car.

No one knows, to this day, exactly what went wrong with Beaumont’s second attempt. The Electric Power Research Institute — a high-powered lobby for the utilities — infused major funding into the project, and then sought control. Beaumont was forced out.

He lacked whatever credentials they thought necessary to break into the big time.

He was flamboyant, outrageous, irritating, self-deprecatingly honest, and a brilliant salesman, manager, promoter, and raconteur. He had nothing in common with conservative financiers, or behind-the-scene politics. He lacked corporate polish — that stultifying golf-course agreeableness where the big deals are cut.

Listen to his words:

Say what you want about me, … extraordinaire, used car salesman, if it can’t be done right, I don’t want any part of it.

To him, right did not mean a David-Copperfield world of illusion where macho men and seductive women raced power-packed gasoline steeds across the American dream of empty roads, canyons, and snow-peaked mountains. For him, right meant reality: building an affordable, pollution-free, commuter car for a country choking on its own emissions, stuck in endless traffic jams, and still commuting the same 20 miles a day it had been commuting for the past 80 years.

He failed once, failed twice. Today, he admits the dream has passed him by.

They say the mind has billions of brain cells, which store all the knowledge accumulated during a person’s life. About 90 percent of my brain cells — albeit the ones that are left — have pondered and thought about what it would take to try to convince the rest of the world that I was right.

He is still wondering.


The Lost Cord: A Storyteller’s History of the Electric Car

$25.95 Available from: Greyden Press 2020 Builder’s Place Columbus, OH 43204 800.881.9421 Accepts all major credit cards.

BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars
BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars
BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars
BAIC E150 EV Electric Cars

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