5 revolutionary EVs that came before Tesla

Tesla revolutionized the consumer EV market. It’s likely that without Tesla and especially its Model 3, EV technology wouldn’t be as widespread as it is today.

Other automakers were lagging behind in EV development until Tesla came along and put the pressure on them. However, many influential electric vehicles in automotive history came before Tesla, which may surprise many people.

1.GM EV1

While the GM EV1 may not look like much today, in its heyday it was an engineering marvel ahead of its time. Before the EV1 became a full-fledged production model, the Impact debuted as a concept car.

GM’s two-seater electric car was very advanced. In 1996, it was equipped with technologies that had recently become commonplace in the automotive landscape. This strange car was extremely aerodynamic (important at the time due to limited battery life) and it boasted a very impressive 0.19 CD.

The EV1’s range was limited to lead-acid batteries, although it was later offered with NiMH batteries, greatly increasing its range. The EV1 was also equipped with regenerative braking, which was extremely advanced technology at the time.

EV1s are equipped with heat pumps, which are essential to increase the EV’s autonomy even in winter. Unfortunately, all these advances could not save the EV1 project, and eventually the cars were repossessed by GM (all EV1s were leased) and most of them were crushed.

Yes, you heard that right, GM decided to destroy most of these engineering marvels. One of the reasons was GM’s inability to provide spare parts for the car.

The whole debacle spawned a documentary that accused GM of killing the electric car, fueling conspiracy theories. Regardless, the EV1 will forever retain its role as an important pioneer in the history of electric vehicles.

2.Chevrolet S10 EV


Image credit: Mike Weston/Flickr

When talking about electric pickups, many people immediately think that Rivian was the first manufacturer to market. But you’d be surprised to learn that the real pioneer of the electric pickup truck industry was actually General Motors.

The Chevy S10 EV hit the scene long before the Rivian, in 1997 to be exact. The S10 was released at the same time as GM’s revolutionary EV1, but the S10 wasn’t the sleek, aerodynamic marvel that the EV1 was.

It looked like any normal truck, and its range was obviously nothing out of the ordinary. Then there was an option for a better battery that improved range, but this wasn’t a truck you could take on a long road trip.

Today we are spoiled with some amazing EV pickup trucks that can really go the distance on a single charge. However, in the early years, GM was severely limited by battery technology that could not provide sufficient range. Nevertheless, GM and its Chevy S10 EV were innovators in the electric pickup segment.

3. Toyota RAV4 EV


Electric SUVs seem to be the hottest vehicles on the road. All automakers offer or plan to offer electric SUVs. This is not surprising, because SUVs generally sell very well.

Before every major automaker decided they needed an electrified SUV, there was the Toyota RAV4 EV in the late 1990s. It’s based on the most useless generation of the RAV4, but the SUV is still a technological marvel ahead of its time. The EPA’s fuel economy website estimates the 2000 RAV4 EV’s total range at 88 miles.

Surprisingly, that’s not a terrible number, especially considering this car is over 20 years old. If you are a city dweller, you can still use this electric vehicle as your daily transportation. It may not be the fastest means of transportation, but it will get you where you’re going.

Here’s another older electric car that’s severely limited by current battery technology. However, it’s still amazing that electric cars hit the streets long before Tesla built its first car.

4.BMW E1

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Image credit: BMW Group

The BMW E1 was a BMW concept car of the early 1990s. BMW’s current i3 electric hatchback is clearly inspired by BMW’s original small electric car.

Both the i3 and the original E1 are built on a lightweight philosophy, with the E1 featuring an aluminum construction as well as a plastic-heavy body. These materials were used to keep the weight down to counterbalance the weight brought by the batteries.

With its 45-horsepower electric motor, the E1 probably wouldn’t make it onto the current list of most capable EVs, but it was still innovative for its time.

It also performed well when it came to a usable range of about 150 miles. It’s almost unthinkable that an EV of this era could offer such a range, especially given the battery technology of the era.

Modern EV manufacturers should emulate BMW’s intensive efforts to limit weight, as excess weight is one of the main drawbacks of modern electric vehicles. The E1 was stunning and surprisingly modern for its time. The side profile is strikingly reminiscent of a scaled-down Tesla Model Xi.

5. GM Sunshine

If you think the other cars on this list were revolutionary at the time, they have nothing to envy to the GM Sunracer. This tadpole-like car was a race car developed by GM and AeroVironment to compete in the 1987 Australian Solar Car Race.

Yes, you read that right, 1987. It’s an electric car from the 80s that runs entirely on renewable energy. The Sunracer laid the groundwork for General Motors’ first electric vehicle, the aforementioned EV1.

AeroVironment, along with GM, was also responsible for the Impact prototype that eventually led to the EV1. The Sunracer was extremely aerodynamic and energy efficient with solar panels mounted on a sleek hull.

This vehicle demonstrated that it is possible to harness energy from the sun to effectively propel a vehicle.

But solar technology in cars hasn’t made the breakthrough that many thought it would, judging by the first Sunracer in the 80s, only in sunlight, and that’s a shame.

If automakers had harnessed solar power since the GM Sunracer, today’s cars would look very different.

Why has EV progress stalled?

All the cars mentioned here are engineering feats. But it’s disheartening to think of the amazing results that more than 30 years of continuous EV research and development can achieve today.

It seems to have led to a period of stagnation in EV development after many automakers innovated with these amazing vehicles.

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