EV History: The Lightning Precedes The Thunder

In 1988, a bunch of engineers from Hotzenwald, Germany, came together and decided that it is time for the future of mobility: A new, more modern and environmentally friendly car should put an end to fossils and emissions while still being fun to drive. “It should become a new kind of car. Smaller, lighter, cleaner – and more beautiful” is how future CEO Thomas Albiez described his mission. For the first time in automotive history, this series car would be designed as an all-electric vehicle from the start and set a new standard for mobility. The project was given the codename “Hotzenblitz” (“Hotzen Bolt”) to indicate how the idea came to them: Like a lightning bolt. The snarky regional term also came with a double meaning: Imaginary lightning bolts, used for insurance fraud.

hotzenblitz_chassis
Hotzenblitz frame construction (origin unknown, image source)

Unnoticed by the rest of the world, they founded Hotzenblitz Mobile. Industrial Designer Harold Schurz was contracted to design the chassis for the Hotzenblitz, which was then modeled into a prototype chassis. The self-funded team moved fast. An external motorsports company helped to develop the tubular steel frame, and soon their vision took on shape. After the team had fitted a motor and transmission into the frame, CEO Thomas Albiez himself installed the traction battery and drive train. The team felt confident with the result, and in July 1990, during an open house day in the office, they somewhat spontaneously decided to call Green Tech entrepreneur and chocolate mogul Alfred Ritter.

Alfred Ritter had experienced financial losses after the Chernobyl Disaster. Many agricultural regions, including several hazelnut plantations that were vital to Alfred’s chocolate business, were irreversibly lost to the fallout contamination. It was then when he turned to the green energy business, founding the Paradigma group to manufacture solar collector systems and pellet heaters. When Thomas and the team called, Alfred jumped on the idea of an electric car. In the same year, Alfred Ritter and his sister Marli Hoppe-Ritter became shareholders in the company and helped to finance the future of the Hotzenblitz.

After 19 months of development, ending in 1990, the team was ready to present their first prototype of the Hotzenblitz, the “EL Sport”, to the press. The little 4-seater semi-convertible was pretty impressive for the time. The design featured tiny lens headlights and had a fancy door opening mechanism — a must-have detail for any futuristic car. A cockpit full of modern LCD instruments welcomed the driver. It even had a drawer-like trunk beneath the rear seats.

The little egg was propelled by a 12.5 kW three-phase induction motor that delivered a peak of 16.5 kW (22.5 HP) to a single speed transmission. That’s not much, but thanks to a glass fiber reinforced polyester chassis and the lightweight frame, the prototype vehicle also only weighed about 600 kg (about 1300 pounds) unloaded. The traction battery, a bunch of lead-acid gel cells that sat in an aluminum vat in the bottom of the car, accounted for more than half of the weight. The cells stored a combined 10 kWh of electrical power and, combined with recuperative braking, gave the car a range of about 70 km (43.5 miles). Next to a 2 kW onboard charger, the traction battery also featured a battery management and diagnosis system, aptly named BADICHEQ (Battery Diagnostic and Charge Equalizing). The system actively balanced the cells, provided battery status and range information on a character LCD in the cockpit, and could be hooked up to a PC through a serial interface for diagnostics.

In terms of acceleration and driving pleasure, the supposed 27 W/kg power-to-weight ratio put the Hotzenblitz in the range of an autocycle. However, the top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph) was enough to keep the project moving. If you know how press presentations work, you can imagine that the first testers of the Hotzenblitz may have experienced a slightly higher performing vehicle. It probably was quite convincing, and the Hotzenblitz earned some good reviews from the press. Despite the fact that the Hotzenblitz was a quirky, expensive mini-car, it convinced other parties to pour more money into the project. There were plans to use the car as a delivery vehicle for the German Mail, and many others saw similar opportunities in the low per-mile and operating cost of the electric vehicle.

The team moved on to overhaul the prototype design, converting it into something that could go into series production. The expensive, custom headlights were dropped in favor of ready-made ones from a large automotive supplier. The futuristic dashboard instruments, except for the battery and range gauge, were replaced by conventional ones supplied by Ford. Because the car couldn’t provide heat from an engine, an additional diesel heater had to be installed to provide heating and allow for better battery performance at cold temperatures. After the all-encompassing reality-treatment, the supposed series model weighed about 780 kg unloaded. With the motor and drive train unchanged, that difference was quite noticeable.

Nevertheless, the funding allowed for the production to get rolling, and the Suhler Fahrzeugwerk GmbH, which was the new operator of the old Simson factory, was contracted to manufacture the Hotzenblitz. Battery upgrades to Zinc-Bromine batteries with a longer range were offered, a stripped down version with textile doors was introduced, and the young company claimed that preorders were piling up. In 1993, the first preproduction models were manufactured and sold to early customers.

hotzenblitz_abs_rework
Only very few of this segmented ABS version were actually built (by J. Hammerschmidt, CC BY-SA 3.0, image source)

With the preproduction running, it quickly became apparent, that the seamless, hand laminated composite chassis could not be produced at reasonable rates. Additionally, the finish of the color coated laminate caused problems. Everything turned out more expensive and less fast-moving than expected. The team worked out a replacement for the troublesome chassis, and an external company was contracted to develop a segmented ABS version. The new chassis could be produced in an automated thermoforming process and didn’t require color coating, which helped to increase the production speed and lower the cost.

However, the ineffective production of cars was burning through the company’s financial reserves, and by the time the changes towards a final production model were implemented, the financial situation of the company was already beyond repair. In 1995 the company urgently had to find new investors to keep the operations going long enough to eventually become profitable. It slowly became apparent that EVs and mini-cars were a thing, but also — and more quickly — that the Hotzenblitz would not live up to any of the expectations. The new chassis was heavier and lowered the now 830 kg heavy car’s performance to that of a moped, while the price point of $39,000 to $62,000 (32,000 – 54,000 DM, a.f.i.) suggested luxury.

All that did not add credibility to Thomas Albiez’s projected sales figures of 20,000 units per year, and after all: It took two years to produce only 150 cars. Thomas Albiez had trouble raising the required $138M (120M DM, a.f.i.), and the production was finally stopped in 1996, when the company filed for bankruptcy. Over the course of the following years, new motor and battery technology made leaps, yet it was too late for Hotzenblitz Mobile. A group of investors purchased the remains of the company, but despite their announcement to revive the project, it wasn’t them who developed a new and improved version of the Hotzenblitz.

hotzenblitz_hylite_2
The “Hylite” Hydrogen fuel-cell version of the Hotzenblitz. (press release, image source)

Instead, the simple, lightweight and hackable construction of the 150 actually built preproduction cars sparked the interest of the hacker community. With a bit of luck, the discontinued model could be obtained at a discount, and it was well worth it to install custom Lithium-Polymer traction batteries, more efficient battery management systems and drive trains into the well-built platform. Small businesses even started assembling “new” Hotzenblitzes from gathered spare parts and custom electronics. Almost a decade after it’s death, the Hotzenblitz development reached its actual peak. In 2005, a research project by the German Aerospace Center brought forth a hydrogen fuel-cell based version, the Hotzenblitz Hylite. And in 2007, a swiss engineering team presented a beefed up version that could travel 350 km on a single charge.

The Hotzenblitz was not the first electric series car, other manufacturers offered electrified versions of their previously gas-fueled models before. But it was the first electric “series” car that was built, from scratch, as an EV. Today, the funny relic and milestone of electrical mobility is a desired collector’s item, and even non-operational ones are pretty hard to get. It is the last car ever built in the Simson factory, which indeed had a knack for manufacturing weird cult vehicles. Some of them are still around, waiting to be hacked.

37 thoughts on “EV History: The Lightning Precedes The Thunder

  1. Short correction: “Hotzenwald” is the “south end” of the Black Forest in Western Germany – here the Hotzenblitz concept was developed; the engineering/build part indeed was then done in Thüringen, East Germany; so one of the first German-German cooperations that sadly didn’t last very long (even though in the early nineties there were many of such innovative projects, especially driven through the Technischen Hocheschulen (institutes of technology) with corresponding challenges/rallyes – Tour de Sol etc.) See wikipedia on this…

    1. The article doesn’t actually say that this was the first electric car. Even without looking anything up, I recall that Thomas Edison produced a few rechargeable electric delivery vehicles in the early 20th century. And I know he wasn’t the first. I just looked at your link and saw a LOT of names there.

      Interesting. If this page is accurate, the earlier books I’d read about Edison’s electric vehicles were overblown:
      http://www.wired.com/2010/06/henry-ford-thomas-edison-ev/

      Not surprising. For most of the 20th century, Thomas Edison’s people have continued hard at work making him into a god that invented everything to do with electricity. The Smithsonian has been under heavy criticism for decades for their misleading displays that seemed designed to imply, without quite lying, that Thomas Edison invented many things invented by others including Nikola Tesla.

  2. It is my belief that electric vehicles must be much lighter than old ICE powered cars to be effective. I mean 1500 kg car is often carrying one 80 kg passenger, come on. Some airplanes can carry useful load equal to their own empty weight: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_C-130_Hercules#Specifications_.28C-130H.29

    In other words, there is no reason why the car frame would be heavier than few hundred kgs at the most (equal to the weight of 4 humans).

    1. You can get close. The issues are cost and compromise.

      If you are happy to forgo creature comforts such as windows… and then there are safety features you can remove… then there are at least a couple of wheels you can get rid of… then there is the performance (I am sure there are some battery powered bicycles and small scooters around here…), you can bring the weight down.

        1. except when you hit a tree or concrete wall. the greater ratio of your vechicle’s weight and thus it’s momentum to the stationary object will reduce your deceleration rate accordingly.

          1. Greater mass also increases impact energy, so instead of stopping you get thrown around when the energy isn’t dissapated on the initial impact. For example, if you go into a roll, a heavy vehicle will keep rolling and rolling while a light vehicle loses momentum fast and comes to a stop without centrifuging everyone’s eyeballs out.

            Simply being heavier isn’t safer. The chassis needs to absorb the energy of the impact gradually and smoothly, which is why flimsy fragile structures like glass fiber shells or highly optimized carbon fiber struts are unsafe: their failure mode is a sudden snap and total loss of rigidity – whereas a heavier steel box beam has rigidity even when deformed, but the higher mass is a side effect and not the reason why it is safe.

    2. Another requirement for a vehicle is passenger safety in a crash – a lot of metal goes into satisfying that requirement.

      I remember that in my youth milk was delivered every day in glass bottles carried in an electric vehicle. Slow, but they carried a large load when full.

      1. The same vans were used for postal service.

        Their downfall was the fact that they went through batteries at an incredible rate. The average replacement rate for the postal vans for lead acid batteries was 14 months in service – and there was no provision for recycling the batteries. They would just tip the lot at some junk yard and pay for it, which in the end made the whole program non-economical and unsustainable. That, and they couldn’t climb a hill for being so heavy.

        Things like Kurbwatt, or Lucas Electric in the UK… etc.

    3. cost (steel is cheap and fast to manufacture), power (100hp-> 76kW), carring load (1T car can tow around 1.5T), safety.
      Most overweight in new vehicle comes from euroNCAP. remember that first euroNCAP tests were awful and prove that most car suffers from very bad safety by design.
      The only solution for lightweight vehicle is to drastically lower max speed, well below 50km/h.

      1. 60 km/h for city driving might be enough. This would allow for even lighter frames, and weaker motors. We must remember that highways did not really exist until mid-20th century. I once took a ride in Fiat Polski (socialist times Polish variant of old Fiat car https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/75/PFFSM126p.JPG ). That thing could not go more than 40 km/h on a long uphill run. Yet it was possible to go on a highway with it, if you felt adventurous :)

        1. 60 kph for city driving is not enough because of the size of modern cities and the need for people to commute for work across longer distances to find work. Usually a modern city is split four or more ways with a highway that carries people across from one side to the next, and that highway greatly relieves the congestion.

          Halving the speed of cars means there’s twice as many cars on the roads for the amount of travel that people need to do at any given time.

          1. I see your point. OTOH, I take a bus to work, and it takes about 35 minutes (of actual bus driving) to cover 15 km. Ouch. Also, electric cars being almost no-polluting, idling time is not a problem when compared to ICE powered cars.

    4. Go look at cars like the Caterham, original Mini, etc. for how light you can make a car – the reason modern cars are so heavy is, in a word, luxury. Partly the luxury of safety, but also the luxury of heating, air-con, sound insulation, soft furnishings, entertainment, electric windows… if you strip all the crap out of a modern car you could probably nearly halve its weight.

      Also EV’s are still fighting battery technology – they need space & weight, and also protection to avoid bad shit going down in a crash. If a battery pack the size & shape of a gas tank could get you 300 miles, EV’s would own the world. As it stands, the battery back takes up basically the whole floorpan.

      1. Those cars were also ridiculously small – to the point that anyone slightly taller than average had troubles fitting in the seat.

        Of course they were light, because they were half the size and volume of even a modern sub-compact. The small size was dictated by post-war material shortages and lack of purchasing power, so people had to make do with these clown cars.

      2. I don’t classify heating and A/C as “luxury”. Try driving in Florida, East Texas, or Arizona in July without A/C. Or Michigan or Canada without heat. Primitive.

          1. You can’t actually drive a car in the winter and sometimes in the rain without heating and forced ventilation because all the windows freeze/fog over from humidity. It’s an essential feature, much like windshield wipers.

            Though sometimes you see people driving around with a thumb size hole pressed into the windshield. Often with bad results.

    5. The 1964 Austin Mini has a GVWR of 910 kg and a curb weight of 605 kg, a ratio of just over 1.50:1. The 2015 Mazda2 (a roughly-comparable 5-seater hatch) has a GVWR of 1500 kg and a curb weight of 970 kg, a ratio of just over 1.54:1. So in terms of fully-loaded capacity, all the modern safety and luxury features haven’t actually cost us any weight. But seeing as most cars only have a single occupant most of the time, we can’t ignore the 60% increase in curb weight. Luckily that difference is still small enough that replacing most of the steel parts with appropriate aluminum alloys would bring us back down to Mini territory. So the question then becomes “can we make this an electric car without making it heavier?”

      The Nissan Leaf has a GVWR of 1940 kg and a curb weight of 1476 kg, a ratio of just over 1.41:1. To get the Leaf up to 1.50:1 would require it to lose 182 kg of curb weight. If all of that came out of the 294 kg battery that would leave just 38% of the original 14 kWh battery capacity, and probably a little better than 38% (51 km) of the original 135 km claimed range. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is still enough to cover most people’s daily commute, even without charging at work. *However*, all of that weight doesn’t have to come out of the battery, because a Leaf stripped of its battery already weighs 212 kg more than a Mazda2, and it doesn’t even have to lug around an engine (probably at least 120 kg including fluids) or fuel tank (around 70 kg filled for the Mazda2). So if we assume that the Leaf body could be built down to the same weight as the Mazda2 body, then the total weight of the Leaf including the 24 kWh battery would be only around 100 kg more than the Mazda.

  3. I can attest to the cult status of Simson factory products. My beloved daily ride is Simson S51, similar to this one: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/91/Suski_Enduro.JPG
    Being hackable was a design requirement in 1984 when mine was made. Contrary to modern times, vehicles had to be affordable and repairable by any reasonably skilled individual. Their ongoing popularity made several factories to continue making affordable replacement parts. It also seems to bring back fond memories of youth among the ’70s generation ;)
    Original electrical system in mine did not include a single semiconductor. Now I am waiting for the PCBs for the FET-based battery voltage regulator, variable timing Hall-triggered DC-CDI unit and bulb flasher, with RS485 connection for an electronic tacho/speedometer to follow. Wish me luck!

  4. Cool car and I’ve never heard of a Zinc Bromine battery before. Annoys me how they always take a crazily cool design and water it down for production. I’m not saying that would be in my top 10 to die for car designs. There have been some amazing concept cars, like the Chevrolet Astro III. Maybe that is where hackers can shine in the future, we will build our own car designs without compromises, and try not to die in them.

  5. The most interesting North American EV ever built is the Zen Motor Car.
    What makes the Zen fascinating is that an upgrade to the transmission and possibly installing additional electric motors could make it a hackers dream machine.
    Americans were the primary target market for this car because the Canadian Government, under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) agreed to never let another innovative technology come out of Canada. Therefore, electric cars here are illegal.
    Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are technically illegal as well.
    The Zen is a piece of engineering work. It looks lime a piece of crap that Toyota threw away, but it can go about 200 km, or 85 miles on one charge, and it takes about 45 minutes to recharge.
    It can hold about 20 24’s of beer, and can be boosted up to a top speed of 120 with a floating transmission, or a tension transmission like a bicycle. The extra motors would be good for powering a 4×4 option but that’s for Canadian winters eh, like getting a custom cup holder for your beer and donuts. Plus, a custom ashtray to hold your stash!

    1. The ZENN motorcar was a front for the EEStor supercapacitor investment fraud.

      The people behind the scam put an electric motor in a licenced chassis, kicked up a company around it, and presented themselves as an interested customer and investor for EEStor Inc. That’s called shilling or stooging – pretending that you’re an independent investor to lure others in.

      After pulling about $35 million dollars mostly from small time private investors, it turned out that EEStor had nothing and no big company really bought their spiel, so ZENN Motorcars announced they’re no longer building cars and instead they are developing and selling the drivetrain technology – namely the EESU supercapacitor technology which doesn’t actually exist except in wishful thinking.

      Then ZENN Motorcars changed its name to EEStor Corporation and as of today they are still peddling the same bullshit, periodically publishing “independent” test results of their technology that contradict known physics and empirical data of any real material by a factor of 100. It’s pretty much Andrea Rossi and the E-Cat sort of stuff by this point.

      The vehicle in question itself was a French microcar that they licensed off of Bénéteau – it’s classified as a quadricycle in the EU and normally comes with a 500 cc motorcycle engine.

      1. Oh, and the drivetrain technology that was used in the 500 or so cars they actually did build was made from off-the-shelf components from General Electrics and Curtis. The power system was six lead-acid batteries with a range up to 40 miles and a top speed of 25 mph.

        The actual car and the actual technology was more or less a standard golf cart in a fancy chassis. The promises of 85 miles and 120 mph, 45 minutes etc. were based entirely on the fraudulent EESTor battery which never existed.

        The main trick, and the reason why EESTor/ZENN didn’t get sued out of their asses was the fact that ZENN “negotiated” an exclusive right to use the EEStor batteries, so they never actually sold the technology to anyone. No deals were made, no promises broken; they made all their money from the thousands of individual people who bought shares in the two companies and believed – and still do – that the technology exists and is viable.

        Now the scam is in the maintenance phase where they keep pretending that it wasn’t a scam.

  6. I won a debate about evs’ whenever I told the judges that the u.s. capitol had evs’ operating in it in the early 1900’s. But I can remember the Citi-cars debut and older teens than myself in the neighborhood building an electric one out of a ’65 Saab.
    I’ve just been riled lately as people claiming “new” to “old” technology. One is a claim to a bicycle 3 speed transmission last month, which I am looking at the 1st one I purchased in the ’70s! The other is an electronics forum building a new object sensoring robot with an ardweeny . I used to rent a robotic caddie in the late ’90s that followed me around the course.
    Then again we all know the answer of EV lack of development- BIG OIL

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