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Nothing new in electric cars

The world's motor manufacturers are busy building new-fangled electric cars. This year, Nissan brought the technology to the UK when it started producing the electric Leaf at its Sunderland plant. This may be the first electric car to be mass produced in Britain but it is very far from being the first electric car to be built on these shores. In 1966, the United Kingdom Electricity Council ran a competition to produce an electric car.

The world's motor manufacturers are busy building new-fangled electric cars. This year, Nissan brought the technology to the UK when it started producing the electric Leaf at its Sunderland plant. This may be the first electric car to be mass produced in Britain but it is very far from being the first electric car to be built on these shores. In 1966, the United Kingdom Electricity Council ran a competition to produce an electric car. That contest was won by Enfield Automotive, who produced a car named the Enfield 8000. They went on to produce more than a 100 of the motors at their plant on the Isle of Wight.

The cars were powered by eight 6v batteries and had a charger onboard which allowed them to be charged directly from a standard household mains socket. They had a top speed of 48mph and a range of 56 miles. This performance is not considerably different from modern electric cars and in a way shows how little these vehicles have developed in nearly 50 years.

The Enfield 8000 was a good performer for its time and could reach 30mph in 12.5 seconds. It also received favourable notices from the motoring press. All seemed set for a successful life and in 1969 it headed off across the Atlantic to the USA and the first ever international exhibition for electric vehicles. Even then, the electric cars were the subject of some ridicule but Ronald Reagan, who was Governor of California at the time, took a more enlightened view. He was excited by the prospect of electric cars, pointing out how suitable they would be on the ecologically sensitive island of Santa Catalina, and offered to provide a factory to build the Enfield in California. He also promised attractive subsidies and guaranteed orders.

Sadly, for the future of the Enfield 8000, its company owner, John Goulandris, declined. His Greek family had extensive shipping interests with the oil industry and many conspiracy theorists have suggested he was pressured by those companies. In any case, in 1973 he moved production of the Enfield to the island of Syros in his native Greece. Sales, however, simply did not take off and in 1976 the last Enfield 8000 was built.

The story of the Enfield 8000 holds many lessons for today's electric car producers. The vehicle was ground-breaking and proved that a car could be powered by rechargeable electric batteries. But it was expensive, more than twice the price of a Mini, and the limited range dissuaded many buyers. It seems that today's electric car producers really could learn from history.

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