Increasing concern over the prospect of the world’s supply of oil running out within a generation prompted a fresh look at electric vehicles in the 1970s. The concern was not about the environment or climate change; it was more about the likelihood that if growth in oil consumption continued at its current rate, and significant new reserves were not discovered, we simply would not be able to move goods and people by road.
The response of the electric lobby was more low key than an urgent call to action. A 1972 brochure from the Electric Vehicle Association called ‘Electric vehicles – the clean machines’ repeated the familiar arguments in favour of battery-electrics, stressing their quietness, ease of driving, low maintenance and so on. Their lack of polluting exhaust was also emphasized.
Amid an array of photographs of milk floats, delivery vans, municipal vehicles and industrial trucks, the financial case was laid out. Considering three vehicles, all with a 20/25 cwt payload and running 150 miles a week, the electric would be 33% cheaper to run than a petrol vehicle and 29% cheaper than a diesel. The trouble was, the initial cost of the electric was much higher than either of the alternatives, and there was always that nagging doubt about battery life.
By this time there were only six makers advertising road vehicles of any kind: Crompton Electricars, Harbilt, Manulectrics, Ross, Smiths and W&E.
In spite of electrics’ apparent clear advantages, Alan Duncan, director of Crompton Electricars declared at a symposium at the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in the early 1970s that in his view three things would have to happen to encourage their wider use.
First was societal change where it became fashionable for a second car to be an electric town runabout. Second was legislative changes that would restrict use of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles, such as limiting speeds in urban areas to reduce pollution. And last was the arrival of much lighter and energy dense batteries (hopefully within ten years).
Of course it has taken over forty years, but all three have now happened. But Alan Duncan believed that often the most important reason why commercial electric vehicles did not make headway was that too many transport managers were not prepared to accept the reality that their vehicles travelled less than 50 miles a day and did not need to go particularly fast.
At the same time the clouds were gathering over the milk float market.
Superficially things looked positive. There were perhaps 40,000 electric milk floats in use. Production was healthy, running at around 2,000 units in 1970. And at that point 80% of the milk sold in the UK was delivered by those floats.
But consumers’ behaviour was changing. More and more women were going out to work and were reluctant to leave milk standing on the doorstep while they were out. The power of the supermarkets was growing rapidly as they began to significantly undercut retail dairies on the price of milk.
In response dairies cut costs by increasing the size of floats to consolidate rounds, with payloads gradually rising from about 30 cwt to as much as four tons. Part of the reason for opting for larger machines was that dairies attempted to recoup lost milk sales by also carrying bread, potatoes and other goods – offering convenience over price to their customers.
The American Society of Automotive Engineers conducted a field trip to the UK in around 1979 (probably with funding from the US government) to investigate what was – at the time – the world’s largest stock of electric vehicles. The team not only visited manufacturers but also went to see major electric vehicle customers. Their findings at two large dairies provide some interesting insights into the nature of their operations at that time.
Express Dairies had about 3,250 electrics, the majority used within London. Its buying policy had changed manufacturers three times since the early 1950s. It bought 700 mostly three-wheelers from W&E between 1953 and 1956. Whether they had three wheels or four, the W&Es had a payload of 30 cwt. Throughout the 1960s it amassed another fleet of 700 machines from Crompton Electricars, these being somewhat larger four-wheelers in the main.
Then, between 1970 and 1974, it took Smiths vehicles with a 3 to 4 ton payload. These were designed in cooperation with Smiths and incorporated the Cabac layout, where the entrance to the cab was sited in the middle of the rear bulkhead. This trend to bigger vehicles was also addressed by lengthening 150 of the W&Es by about 300 mm to increase the payload to just over two tons.
United Dairies was an even bigger operation, delivering milk every day to about three million homes as far north as Liverpool. It was still using the first Wales and Edwards prototype from 1947 as a works runabout. Thereafter it built up a very large fleet of W&Es and at the end of the 1970s almost the entire fleet was three-wheelers – preferred because of their ability to get into narrow streets, their tight turning circle and their ease of maintenance. Even the faster ones did not get above 15 mph and the slowest ones crawled along at 8 mph, but that was considered adequate for urban routes.
In the mid-1980s the fleet stood at 7,400 floats, 5,000 of them from W&E and the remainder from Smiths and Crompton Electricars. By this time there was a distinct trend towards four wheelers at United Dairies. The W&E 4/60 could carry a 70% greater payload than the three-wheelers. Its GVW of 6.2 tonnes permitted a bigger battery to be fitted and the range extended to 60 miles. It also allowed the body to be fully enclosed with sliding doors and fitted with eutectic refrigeration to keep the products fresh and cool. In a eutectic system, the enclosure is chilled overnight while the milk float is being recharged and the space remains cool throughout the following day.
If the traditional electric vehicle manufacturers were not invigorated by the opportunity arising from threats to the internal combustion engine owing to the world potentially running out of oil, others certainly were. During the 1970s efforts began on moving away from traditional slow and steady electric vehicles to ones that could compete in certain roles on almost equal terms with contemporary internal combustion machines – so-called ‘advanced’ electrics.
And the leaders in their development were battery manufacturers. Thanks to consolidation within the automotive electrical industry as a whole, Joseph Lucas Limited and Chloride Technical Limited had emerged as not only major suppliers of automotive electrical components and batteries, but also leaders in electric vehicle research.
Lucas was concentrating on squeezing the maximum out of lead-acid batteries through clever vehicle and system design. Chloride was pursuing next generation batteries – particular the sodium-sulphur cell.
Lucas’s development programme began in 1968 with the conversion of a Bedford CA petrol van – its energy coming from an array of starter batteries. In 1971 two prototypes were built with an improved drive system, based on the Austin 250 JU, chosen largely because its rear axle ratio was well-suited to handling the 4,200 rpm speed of the motor. In spite of an ambition to carry a payload of 750 kg, the weight of the battery and the fact it intruded into the load space meant the 2.5 tonne GVW vehicle only had a payload of 580 kg, including the driver.
Lucas’s ultimate aim was to achieve a one tonne payload within a GVW of three tonnes in a compact urban delivery vehicle. Its investigations showed that the Bedford CF had a basic configuration that stood the best chance of fitting in the battery and power train. Two prototypes were built but the battery arrangement still intruded significantly into the load space. Each van was fitted with front and rear suspension sets from bigger Bedford models to handle the extra unladen weight due to the battery.
Twenty more examples were built in 1973 and 1974 – ten with a fixed-pack pannier style arrangement, and ten with a sliding pack where the battery could be removed as a unit. According to Lucas, sixteen went to the Post Office, and the balance to newspaper companies and airlines.
In 1975 they all went for trials with the Post Office for three years. The fixed-pack vehicles were used for postal deliveries; the sliding pack ones were telecommunications service vans. An important conclusion from this work was that the more successful route to widespread use of electric vehicles would be by designing vehicles from scratch as electrics. The cost disadvantage due to low production volumes would be offset by optimised design and better performance and operating costs.
On this basis Lucas sponsored the development of the Lucas Electric Taxi. Although it was built to the strict taxi specifications of the London Metropolitan Police, it managed to be three feet shorter than the standard diesel-engined machine yet achieve a bigger passenger compartment. The taxi was designed by David Ogle Limited, a leading industrial design firm.
Two prototypes were built but they did not lead to any production versions. They were the first vehicles to house the battery entirely under the floor, and they also had front wheel drive. It looked like the practical route forward would indeed be to adapt mass-production vehicles and accept some design compromises.
By 1977 Lucas Batteries Limited had progressed to a conversion of a Bedford CF3 van or chassis cab, to be known as the CFE. Based on the experience with the first fleet and the electric taxis, the drivetrain was optimised so that it could be fitted on the regular production line also producing diesel or petrol vans. That meant having no part of the battery or drive train intruding into the normal load carrying space.
This would allow Bedford (or any other manufacturer) to offer a Lucas electric version of its vehicle in any of the three basic variants in which van models were usually sold – chassis cowl, chassis cab or complete van. The 40 kW motor was mounted transversely behind the rear axle, and transmitted power to the rear axle through a two stage Morse Hyvo chain reduction system.
This layout permitted the battery to be installed as a single one tonne pack within the wheelbase, suspended from three quick-release mountings. To remove this pack a special pallet was developed. First the rear axle would be jacked up. The pallet would be slid under the back of the van and placed under the battery. Two large pillows on the pallet would be inflated until they were taking the weight. The quick release catches would be undone and the pillows gently deflated so that the battery pack could be pulled clear for examination or replacement. It was asserted that removal and replacement could be achieved by one person in half an hour.
The CFE was claimed to offer acceleration from rest to 30 mph within 14 seconds, a top speed of 50 mph, a minimum working range of 70 miles and a range at a constant 30 mph of 140 miles. These vehicles incorporated regenerative braking.
Interestingly, Lucas believed that the main benefit of regenerative braking was not extended range (or the need to specify a smaller battery for a particular application). The main attraction was reduced wear and tear on the braking system. However, operational experience with the fleet showed that if the vehicle brakes were not employed enough the pads would either glaze (and lose their grip) or would not dry out quickly if they got wet.
Dozens of Bedford prototypes travelled far and wide to experience various operating conditions. In 1973 two early examples were put into service in Lisbon; other vans went for short-term trials with the US Post Office and the British Embassy in Washington DC. Later on, one went to Electricite de France, another went for winter testing in Austria, and Australia welcomed a mini-bus for a one-year trial. China Light and Power and Hong Kong Electric Company each ran one in Hong Kong’s high temperature, high humidity conditions. Back in the UK, from 1978 62 of the Bedford CFE prototype vans were run in service by 21 major fleet operators in London, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Glasgow.
By 1980 Lucas had a small and varied fleet of prototype vehicles used for development work. In addition to the Bedford CFE, there was a Ford Transit and a Freight Rover Sherpa. The Transit was a Mk1 without the 1977 facelift so it is unclear whether either of these latter vehicles was configured in cooperation with their respective manufacturers. By this point the 65 Bedford CFEs already in service had accumulated a combined 300,000 miles in regular operation.
Lucas held discussions with Leyland to see whether the company was interested in building electric vans for a market sampling exercise and whether it had a suitable base vehicle. Leyland believed that it would make most sense to develop a van with a GVW of 3.5 tonnes, which was an important weight point in the UK and European markets, in terms of vehicle legislation and driving regulations.
The firm also believed that a chassis-based vehicle, rather than a semi-integral pressed steel type like the Ford and Bedford products, would be the best way to go. Accordingly, the Leyland EA 350 van was proposed, its high stance and simple layout making it a pretty straightforward basis for conversion to electric drive. It was also arguably the most ugly-looking van ever foisted on the British market. Whatever the reason was, Lucas did not take the discussions any further.
Meanwhile the Electricity Council (a development organisation set up in 1966 by the state-owned electricity generators) and Chloride formed Chloride Silent Power with the remit to accelerate development of the sodium-sulphur (NaS) battery, with the aim of producing a 100 kWh power pack for commercial vehicles and buses. It promised much superior performance to the lead-acid, with a 5:1 improvement in volume and weight for a particular energy capacity, allowing a higher payload and greater range within a given vehicle.
The big snag was that it had a working temperature of 300 degrees Celsius, so battery protection and insulation were major concerns. As it turned out the NaS battery development turned into a long saga of unmet deadlines; it was always ‘just round the corner’. But in the mid-1970s optimism about this new type of cell was high and Chloride was keen to lead the way.
In the 1970s Chloride was the biggest supplier of traction batteries to the British electric road vehicle fleet, as well as being a major provider of chargers. The firm set up the Motive Power Projects Group (MPPG) in 1973 to explore applications for its batteries other than in milk floats (a market clearly heading for decline) and subsequently provide a platform for the sodium-sulphur battery.
But Chloride also remained interested in broadening the market for lead-acid traction batteries beyond milk floats.
National Carriers was a subsidiary of the National Freight Corporation and during the 1970s ran a fleet of over 6,000 vehicles delivering small and medium weight parcels and freight consignments across the UK. In 1972 the firm started to examine the potential of using electric vehicles in some applications.
The following year NFC approached Chloride Technical and Chrysler UK about building a number of electric vehicles to see whether they might have a role. National Carriers already ran some 1,200 examples of Chrysler’s Commer or Dodge KC40 Walk-Thru panel van – a practical but slab-faced box dating back over a decade that looked like a good foundation.
The three organisations formed a consortium and contributed £5,000 apiece to the initiative. A performance specification was set out which reflected what the existing KC40 fleet needed to achieve: a top speed of 40 mph, acceleration from rest to 30 mph in 19 seconds, a range of up to 40 miles on urban delivery, and a payload of 1.8 tonnes.
After two years work at Chrysler’s Special Equipment Operations Workshop in Luton, the Silent Karrier Mk1 was delivered. Aside from eliminating all unnecessary parts from the base diesel vehicle, the wheelbase was shortened by 10 inches, perhaps to avoid inadvertent overloading. A major difference from milk float technology was that in order to achieve the required performance these vehicles had to operate at 160 V, twice the system voltage of the ubiquitous milk float.
The single prototype was placed in service in Birmingham in February 1976, and in August went to Bolton for further evaluation. Although it featured thyristor chopper control to achieve high road speeds of up to 45 mph, its range of just 35 miles proved inadequate for National Carriers’ parcel delivery rounds. Otherwise it proved very reliable, with a service availability of 97%.
By fitting a battery with a 20% higher energy density and an entirely new power train, the range limitation was overcome and the consortium agreed to build a batch of 15 Mk1A Silent Karriers of which National Carriers would take five. Its version was called the Electraflow Van, was based on the Dodge KC60 and reverted to the wheelbase length of the standard KC40. This was a nominal six ton GVW vehicle, but taking away the base vehicle and battery weight still left a useful payload of only 35 cwt.
After problems with the controller, all National Carriers’ vehicles were eventually built and in service by 1979. Just to make life confusing, these vehicles carried Dodge emblems thanks to Chrysler’s new badging policy! One joined the Mk1 in Bolton, two operated in the hilly terrain of South Yorkshire, one went to Harlow and the remaining pair were allocated to central London. Later, another two went to Bristol.
Ultimately 70 improved Silent Karriers were produced, going to customers in the UK like Southern Electricity (who took twenty to run around Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight), and as far afield as the Netherlands, South Africa and the United States. In fact twenty different operators took the Silent Karrier, including National Carriers, Manchester council, Norweb, Rank Hovis McDougall, Roadline UK, Seeboard, Segas, Southern Electricity, Watney Mann & Truman, WH Smith and Wincanton Group (Unigate). Examples also found their way to the Tennessee Valley Authority and United Parcel Services (UPS) in the United States.
One popular application for the Silent Karrier was as a tower wagon for jobs like street lighting maintenance. The very low centre of gravity due to the underslung battery made it an ideal foundation. But the Silent Karrier was on borrowed time; the base vehicle was coming to the end of its life and was destined to be replaced by an entirely new model, the Dodge Series 50.
Behind the scenes, work on the sodium-sulphur battery continued, trying to produce a robust, reliable device which could achieve a range and road performance superior to that of the lead-acid battery. Instead of working with an established auto manufacturer for sodium-sulphur battery research, Chloride produced its own prototype vehicle as a technology demonstrator. The aim was to achieve a range of 150 miles at 40 mph, or an urban delivery cycle of up to 75 miles with 600 stops. The prototype eventually appeared in 1978 as the Van About Town.
The London Electric Delivery Van Assessment Scheme (known as ‘London Goes Electric’) was set up in 1979 to acquire lots of real-life data on the practical operation of battery-electrics in contemporary urban conditions. This knowledge would inform improved future electric vehicle designs and operating techniques.
The British Government put in £400,000 which would enable operators to buy 62 vehicles at prices close to equivalent diesel models. In return they would have to provide most of this data. London was chosen since it was the largest conurbation in the UK and the Greater London Council was keen to support the initiative.
Three suppliers and nine operators took part. 12 Crompton Electricars K2s went to Initial Services (an existing customer). 25 Chloride/Chrysler Silent Karriers went to National Carriers, Roadline UK, London boroughs, utilities and Ever Ready (the consumer battery company). 25 Lucas/Vauxhall Bedford CFEs went to London boroughs, the Army, the Metropolitan Police, Initial Services, the Post Office, British Telecom, the Central Electricity Generating Board and Associated Newspapers.
A lot of information was certainly collected but how much of it was of real value in helping to design and operate new fleets of electrics is debatable.
Some statistics for 1979 give an overview of the status of the British electric vehicle market at that time. The total number of driver-controlled battery-electric road vehicles at the end of the year, that covered goods vehicles and street cleansing vehicles, was 31,242. On top of that there were 12,446 works trucks licensed for road use, giving a total of 43,688. A licensed works truck would be one used to transport goods from one site to another that was close by.
Production of electric goods vehicles came to 1,030, of which 894 were dairy vehicles and 42 were for municipal applications. There were two light vans (maybe Lucas prototypes). The great majority of vehicles were in the 20 – 30 cwt range. Only 44 electrics of any kind were exported.
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