June 3, 2020

Long Before Tesla, This 1959 Car Brought Electric Cars Back Into the Spotlight

Long Before Tesla, This 1959 Car Brought Electric Cars Back Into the Spotlight

A new departure in electric vehicle construction: light, safe, noiseless, odorless, clean, durable, comfortable, simple in operation. Battery guaranteed for two years. In no other vehicle are all these desirable qualities combined. One motoring reporter waxed enthusiastic about the car and further stated that there was just no point in waiting for price reductions or improvements—this was it! The car described was the Waverley, one of the best known of the early-1900s electric cars.

Some 59 years later, this reporter became quite enthusiastic while testing the Charles “Town-About,” a completely new and modern electric car. This newest of American autos is being manufactured by the Stinson Aircraft Tool & Engineering Co. of San Diego, California. It is interesting to note the similarity between the claims of the old Waverley, and the new Town-About. Light: The new car features an aluminum frame, light suspension components, and fiberglass body. Safe: It has two roll bars built into the roof, which are designed to support the weight of the car. Noiseless: The prototype makes no noise, except in the cab, which has not been soundproofed. Odorless: absolutely no odor. Clean: just everyday dust, no oil or grease. Durable: The components have been stressed by aircraft engineers, except for the aluminum frame, which was stressed by Alcoa Aluminum’s engineers. Comfortable: The “Americanized” VW-type suspension, plus foam rubber seating, brings electric car comfort up to date. Simple in operation: The prototype VW transmission will give way to a two-position (low and cruising speed) electric transmission. Reverse by turning the key, which reverses the current. Battery guaranteed for two years: The complete car is also guaranteed for two years and will be factory-serviced free!

The prototype looks similar to a Karmann-Ghia VW at the front, with large “Detroit” fins at the rear. In the interests of safety in heavy traffic, the Town-About mounts large steel bumpers and over-riders fore and aft. Outwardly, except for the absence of exhaust pipes, there are no indications of other than combustion propulsion. A glance at the space usually occupied by the jump seat, however, throws the casual bystander into confusion—it is filled with batteries! In the production version, the batteries will be in a box below the jump seat. Test instrumentation (two ammeters and one voltmeter) hangs below an otherwise stock dash.

Starting is unbelievably simple: Just pull a knob, turn the “ignition” key, and the car is ready—a condition indicated by complete silence. Shift into first, step on the throttle, and the car moves away. However, because there is no soundproofing in the test car, it rumbles, and you can hear the familiar high-pitched whine of the two 3.2-horsepower motors. Acceleration in the prototype is a bit jerky because of the temporary button-type rheostat switch, which will be replaced by a smooth sliding unit.

Since the test car was a very expensive one-of-a-kind, I made no abrupt starts, stops, or turns. With its top speed of 58 mph on the level, the Town-About easily kept up with average freeway traffic. Even with 65 percent of the weight at the rear, the car corners well within its capabilities. The 2.4 turns lock-to-lock and 18-foot turning circle make traffic driving a pleasure. The trunk of the prototype contains a maze of wiring, with electrical components hanging from every conceivable type of mounting. This was done to isolate the equipment for quick checks by Stinson engineers. The production version will be compacted through the use of aircraft-type multiple cables and connectors.

For city dwellers, the Town-About will really be the answer to cheap, durable, second car transportation. As implied by the name, it has been developed for use within the limits of a city. The only real problem seems to be range. The prototype is relatively heavy but will drive the car 77 miles on one full charge. From a “down” condition, it takes about 7 hours for a good tapered charge. The charger (supplied with the car) automatically sets its own charge rate according to the condition of the batteries, cutting relative charging time. Stinson engineers expect the production model, with its aluminum frame, to raise the range in excess of 100 miles right off the bat. A half-dozen battery companies are working on high amp, lightweight units for missile research, which could possibly extend the Town-About’s range many times over. West Coast parking lot moguls have been approached (and are enthusiastic) with the idea of installing “charge meters,” which would charge Town-Abouts while owners were shopping or working at the office.

This rebirth of the electric car is the result of a luncheon chat between Deane Van Noy, president of Stinson, and Dr. Charles Graves, a dentist, inventor, and physicist. Both men, independently, had been toying with the possibilities of building an electric car. Van Noy was already manufacturing four-wheeled electric golf carts (Tee-Birds) and had quickly realized the possibilities of the electric drive. Meanwhile, Dr. Graves had been collecting data and doodling plans for various types of electric drives.

Two years later, after many trials and tribulations, they had built a factory designed to mass-produce electric cars, completed the mechanical engineering, produced a working prototype, and were almost finished with detailed tooling plans. As this story goes to press, the components are being tooled by various Southern California companies, such as Convair and Magesco.

Having developed the car in secrecy, it was with amazement that Stinson began receiving huge bags of mail inquiring about the car. It seems that the Kiplinger Report had casually mentioned that an electric car was being developed somewhere in the San Diego area. The resulting mail broke a record at Kiplinger! As a direct result, the Stinson Company has received over 90,000 pieces of mail from 33 states, Mexico, Canada, and Belgium.

To sort of prove a point, Deane Van Noy allowed me to open his morning mail. In general, the mail was from brokers and private parties desiring stock quotations, both students and engineers asking for technical information, dealers seeking franchises, a woman who wanted an electric car because the smog control board was after her 1947 car, and a pile of four-digit certified checks from power and light companies ordering cars for trial.

Lightweight, replaceable, separate-celled selenium batteries make up the power pack. The 48-volt system puts out 260 ampere-hours. Pack will be carried below the jump seat.

Two 3.2-hp 3,300-rpm electric motors are geared into a 1:1 gearbox coupled to a VW transmission. Makeshift wiring will be replaced with multiple aircraft-type connections.

Beneath the stock VW dash are temporary instruments: two ammeters and a voltmeter. Prototype VW transmission will be replaced with an electric “Dual-range” transmission.

Stinson’s new plant was designed specifically to handle production-line automobile manufacture. Beginning in April, the San Diego Plant will Produce 80 “Town-Abouts” per month.

Author (center) discusses electric car with developers Dr. Charles Graves and Deane Van Noy.

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