Electric cars are no longer wild-eyed wonders of the local glass blower (he's moved on to car sharing, telepathy and simple reiki, by the way). Twenty years ago, however, the genre was unkempt, to say the least. Kit manufacturers offered do-it-yourself science projects and retrofits in the back pages of magazines, which had the unfortunate effect of branding the movement as a lifestyle more than a technological tour de force. When BMW entered the electric car discussion with a groundbreaking concept at the 1991 Frankfurt Auto Show, it put some seriousness behind the whole idea. The E1 (known internally as the Z11) might have looked like a strange, small BMW, but it was still a Bimmer. Dual front airbags and as-expected fit-and-finish were like nothing out of a Sierra Club swap meet. This was a proper electric vehicle, the kind of thing that might just chip away at perceptions.
What's most fascinating is that BMW found a remarkably Bavarian solution to the problem of creating an electric vehicle for everyday use. Despite its front-drive looks, the E1 received power at the rear wheels like the rest of the company's production lineup. Power from the motor, some 37 kW, wasn't enormous (today's Tesla Roadster outputs 215 kW, by comparison), but the car was light. Specs were never released on curb weight, but materials -- an all-aluminum chassis and plastic body panels -- would not indicate the E1 needed a diet. With a top speed of 75 mph and a range of 150 miles, the E1 was impressive even by today's standards. Remember, the new Chevy Volt is expected to deliver just 40 miles of pure electric driving. BMW was -- all of a sudden -- taking a lead in electric car development and showing the world what it could do.
The E1's drive train and electric motor were developed at UQM Technologies (then known as Unique Mobility) in Colorado. BMW's selection of UQM was as curious as it was as creative: Until that time the small Rocky Mountain firm was best known for creating a hybrid-electric broadcast truck for ABC's coverage of the 1984 Olympics and its own "Electrek" hatchback, which looked like an AMC Gremlin that had been in a bar fight.
After its auto show appearance, the one and only prototype performed ceremonial taxi duty for journalists and friends of the automaker. Journalist Alex Law wrote, rather specifically, in the Kitchener - Waterloo Record: "I would feel perfectly comfortable running one around Kitchener-Waterloo."
BMW says that today the E1 lives on in spirit, representing a "launch pad for holistic development of electro-mobility concepts in the BMW Group." They are not kidding. The E1 has no physical presence today: during testing after its debut, the one and only E1 prototype caught fire during recharging and burned to the ground, taking with it a corner of an engineering building.