Wacky electric car made in Colorado finds a second life with enthusiasts

In addition to the bizarre styling, the seller noted that the car was an all-electric vehicle built in Englewood. Kavanaugh didn’t hesitate. He had watched his future rot in a Denver dump.

“He has a face only a mother could love,” Kavanaugh said. “We just sort of decided: we have to buy one.”

Kavanaugh would eventually purchase another Unique Mobility Electrek which was in better condition than the first vehicle. The film student quickly fell in love with the car’s many quirks, including a “defroster” that was nothing more than a Gillette hair dryer attached under the dash.

Since then, the film student has helped build a community dedicated to not just putting cars back on Colorado’s roads, but establishing their place in automotive history.

He created a website and social media accounts to commemorate the vehicle. Former Unique Mobility engineers even helped Kavanaugh restore a pair of model cars to working order.

“They were Elon Musk before Elon Musk,” Kavanaugh said. “Even though few people know about them, it’s one of the main reasons why electric cars are still on the road today.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Old ads for Unique Mobility’s Electrek “van” which features the very model parked in Declan Kavanaugh’s family garage in Monument. March 19, 2022.

A car born out of the 1973 energy crisis

Unique Mobility founder John Gould is now 84 and lives in Lakewood. One recent afternoon, he sat at his kitchen table with filing cabinets full of photos and news articles documenting the company’s history. If any greasy young apes have taken an interest in the Electrek, he wants to make sure they succeed.

Gould incorporated Unique Mobility in 1967 hoping to build a small sports car. To help fund the project, the company developed a specialty in fiberglass products like kayaks and airplane parts.

Its main focus was dune buggies, which Gould said were often sold to tourist attractions, hobby kits, or pizza delivery vehicles.

The company began exploring the possibility of an electric car after the 1973 energy crisis, which left American drivers painfully aware of their dependence on major foreign oil producers. At the same time, Gould began to notice pollution filling the skies over the world’s major cities, which he knew was partly due to the increasing number of cars.

Photo courtesy of John Gould
A first photo of a Unique Mobility Electrek

“It seems like the right thing to do,” Gould said. “If I’m going to be involved in manufacturing automobiles, why wouldn’t I do something more environmentally friendly?”

Gould said his company decided to take a “systems approach” to designing a practical battery-powered car. Company engineers and mechanics hung diagrams and lists around their manufacturing facility in Englewood.

Their goal, he said, was to solve the problems that other automakers had when converting traditional internal combustion cars to electric vehicles.

In most cases, these companies stacked lead-acid batteries under the hood, which created a dangerous safety hazard. If a driver had an accident, Gould said they risked being run over in a “lead sandwich”.

Their proposed solution was a long train of 16 golf cart batteries arranged in a fiberglass tunnel running through the center of the vehicle. The company also opted to use fiberglass for the car’s body, which an early press release said was “corrosion and electric shock resistant.”

After five years of development, the first Electrek went on sale in 1979 for $25,000 – around $90,000 today.

Despite the sticker high price, the ads promised buyers a car capable of highway speeds and a range of up to 100 miles when driven at a steady 40 miles per hour. The company also claimed that the car only cost 1 cent per mile to maintain and operate.

Between 1979 and 1982, Gould said Unique Mobility made over 50 Electreks.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Declan Kavanaugh drives his Unique Mobility Electrek “van” near his family home in Monument. March 19, 2022.

The “era of shit”

Unique Mobility wasn’t the only company rushing to build viable electric cars.

After the oil crisis, President Jimmy Carter called for new technologies to mitigate future oil shocks. A wide range of companies have attempted to respond to the moment with electric vehicles like the CitiCar, a small electric coupe resembling a wedge-shaped piece of Lego.

Enthusiasts today now call this era of electric car manufacturing the era of crap — a time when automakers lacked the technology or design savvy to create sensible alternatives to internal combustion vehicles.

Kavanaugh said his experience restoring Electreks showed him the car had serious shortcomings. After months of rebuilding the car alongside former Unique Mobility engineer Jim McCollough, he was able to give it a first spin in 2020. Delighted, he recorded a profanity-filled Snapchat for his friends, but quickly realized that driving the car had some drawbacks.

One was the actual car battery capacity. The promised range of 100 miles is closer to 50, even with modern golf cart batteries. Rocks and pebbles drum against the car’s all-fiberglass bottom.

Even on a quick trip out of his garage in Monument during the interview for this story, Kavanaugh easily got stuck on a slight incline with a blanket of snow, proof that the 32-horsepower engine didn’t have a hard time. lots of punch.

All of these issues aside, Kavanaugh thinks the Electrek could have been a serviceable car for many environmentally conscious buyers. What he thinks really dooms the car is its looks.

“It’s so dumb. You’ve probably seen how dumb it looks to drive,” Kavanaugh said.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Declan Kavanaugh’s Unique Mobility Electrek “panel van” parked in the driveway of his family home in Monument. March 19, 2022.

The Electrek was never meant to be aesthetic

Gould isn’t offended by the consensus on the aesthetics of his electric car. In fact, he agrees that the Electrek “isn’t a nice car.”

Gould said the car’s appearance was never an issue because the Electrek was what the auto industry calls a “mule”, a short-term production car built to test the reliability and durability of design.

Many of its quirks — like drooping sash windows and a hair dryer defroster — were necessary to keep costs down, Gould said.

His final vision for an electric car was much more refined. After retreating to a back room in his home, he returned with a sleek, dark figure of a model car he called the Mariah, named after the country classic “They Called the Wind Mariah.”.

Sam Brasch/CPR News
John Gould with a model for the Mariah, an electric car concept developed by Unique Mobility.

“Our preference was going to be this car,” he said.

Gould hoped to build the vehicle in Colorado, but he said his company’s board decided that selling electric car components and expertise was a smarter business move.

After dropping the Mariah, the company was renamed UQM Technologies and focused on manufacturing electric transmissions. Gould said he has helped BMW, Ford and General Motors with electric vehicle research. The work did not immediately lead to production vehicles, but he believes the knowledge is now being applied in new models.

The company has also worked with defense contractors and electric vehicle pioneer Chip Yates, who set the record for the fastest ascent of Pikes Peak with a motorcycle powered by a UQM engine.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The end of a long, heavy battery train from Declan Kavanaugh’s Unique Mobility Electrek

In 2019, UQM Technologies sold to Dutch conglomerate Danfoss for around $100 million. Despite the success, Gould is still thinking about his old dreams of building electric vehicles in Colorado.

“Particularly when I see some of the new electric car companies joining us, they’re raising billions of dollars,” Gould said. “If I was in my 20s, 30s, 40s or whatever, I’d probably give it a swing.”

As for the young people who revive old cars, he is puzzled but flattered.

“I would like to thank them for bringing this old vehicle back to life,” Gould said.

It’s fortunate that many car enthusiasts now agree that the Electrek wasn’t a dud – it was just ahead of its time.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Under the hoods of Declan Kavanaugh’s Unique Mobility Electrek cars.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Declan Kavanaugh drives his Unique Mobility Electrek “van” near his family home in Monument. March 19, 2022.

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