1966 GM Electrovan prototypeThinking inside the box

This little known and seldom referred to prototype van is a nice feather in General Motors’ cap. With all the fanfare surrounding modern alternative-energy vehicles, a person might think the idea is something new to the industry. On the contrary.

Without going into a dissertation on the topic suffice it to say that horseless carriages predate the gas engine. Despite gas’ dominance since times of antiquity, automotive history is filled with examples of industrial giants and garage tinkerers trying to find the elusive gas alternative.

This is one of GM’s efforts from the 1960s and it represents a world’s first.

The world’s first…
Excluding diesel, natural gas and bio fuels, probably the most popular alternative to gasoline would be electric drive. Electric motors can be found cooperating, to various degrees, with internal combustion engines in hybrids, and working on their own in pure electric vehicles (EVs).

1966 GM ElectrovanThere is another alternative which, like a gas-powered vehicle, requires a liquid fuel to run and produces an exhaust yet has no internal combustion engine; like an EV, it’s moved with electric motors but doesn’t have to be plugged in to recharge. That other alternative is hydrogen, used in a fuel cell.

Put succinctly, a fuel cell converts the chemical energy from a fuel, such as hydrogen, into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen. The “exhaust” is mere water vapor and with the electricity it creates, an electric motor and accessories can be powered. The fuel cell has been around since the mid 1800s, but it took until 1966 for the idea to be married with a vehicle when GM introduced it on the Electrovan prototype.

I saw it when I was at the Heritage Center in Detroit earlier this year. From the outside, it looks like an unassuming GMC Handivan (the vehicle it is based on) but within the walls of the normally family- and cargo-friendly hauler, there is but a single rather tight second row bench. A vast majority of this van’s interior is consumed by the components required to extract electricity from a liquid. In fact, the prototype van, not a large van by modern standards, weighs in at a whopping 7,100 pounds. The electrolyte, stored below the second-row bench, alone weighed 550 pounds.

1966 GM ElectrovanTo the right is a picture of the fuel cell componentry. Half of the passenger bench is removed and some of the electrolyte reservoir is visible, as well some of the 32 fuel cell modules. (The gallery size pictures, on page 2, offer more detail.)

Most prevalent are the tanks. Although it differs slightly from a diagram that was displayed next to the van, the red ones appear to be the hydrogen tanks and the green one the oxygen tank. The oxygen, by the way, was stored in liquid form. Making things a little unnerving for occupants, the tanks were pressurized and cryogenically super-cooled.

I understand when experimenting with new technologies it sometimes includes hazards but this seemed like quite the witch’s brew. According to references, there were some injury-free accidents that caused “brilliant fireworks” from an electrolyte leak and an “incident” that involved an exploding hydrogen tank that catapulted pieces up to a quarter of a mile away. The van was subsequently put on house arrest, meaning kept within the confines of GM property when in use, as a risk-reducing measure.

1966 GM Electrovan control panel

Facing the side doors is a “Fuel System Monitor and Control” panel. It looked like an engineering panel right out of the starship Enterprise, the Enterprise from the 1960s of course. But everything was in pristine condition on the van. It looked what I imagined it looked like to its technology-stretching creators during testing.


Continue to page 2, below.

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