Here's how those who lived the EV1 saga remember it

25 years ago, GM rolled out the EV1, a triumph of electrification that ended in a crushing blow. But the car planted the seed for the industry embrace of EVs now.


The EV1 was a showcase of GM’s technological prowess. But money woes kept its developers on edge.

The evening of March 27, 1996, started like so many others for Ken Baker in those days — with a snag.

On his way out the door for his birthday dinner, Baker, who had shepherded General Motors' electric vehicle program from its infancy, received a phone call from workers at the factory in Lansing, Mich., where the long- awaited EV1 was supposed to soon enter production. There was a problem, they said. Serious. Better come quick.

GM had been beset by years of technical challenges and financial calamity that nearly scuttled the program, so Baker had grown accustomed to complications and curveballs. Yet the EV1 stood on the cusp of production. What now?

1997 EV1

Range: 70 miles city, 90 miles highway. Range increased to up to 160 miles with a new battery pack in 1999.
Batteries: Pack consisting of 26 12-volt lead-acid batteries with combined power of 312 volts and combined weight of 1,175 pounds. GM introduced more efficient nickel-metal hydride batteries in 1999.
Aluminum space frame: It weighed 290 lbs. vs. 600 lbs. for a conventional steel frame.
Aerodynamic drag coefficient: 0.19. The EV1 held the title of most aerodynamic vehicle until the Volkswagen XL1 tied it in 2013.
Seats: 2
Length: 169.7 in.
Width: 69.5 in.
Height: 50.5 in.
Curb weight: 2,970 lbs.
0 to 60 mph: 8.5 seconds
Top speed: 80 mph
Cargo volume: 9.7 cubic feet

"I walked into the plant and into the main show area, where all the people from the plant and most from the program had gathered, to a chorus of 'Happy Birthday,' " Baker said. "They pull the curtain back, and here was serial No. 1, with a red ribbon on it. There wasn't a dry eye in the place."

Deliveries began Dec. 5 that year, and the EV1 quickly captivated car enthusiasts, environmentalists and regulators, who saw the car as a means to both instant torque and cleaner skies.

Such enthusiasm was short-lived. For reasons that remain controversial, only 1,117 EV1s were ever produced. The electric vehicles reflecting the dedicated work of hundreds of engineers were destroyed by the jaws of a crusher at GM's Yuma, Ariz., proving ground in 2003.

Electrification had reached a dead end. Or so it seemed. Twenty-five years after the first EV1s rolled off the line, GM has vowed to launch an all-electric light-vehicle lineup by 2035, the roots of which were planted more than a quarter century ago.

Long before the word "moonshot" became synonymous with Silicon Valley ambition, GM had launched an improbable one of its own by bringing to life the EV1, the first auto of the modern age designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle for consumers.

A group of aerospace engineers — several had worked on space missions and fighter jets — battery experts, nuclear physicists, freelance tinkerers and automotive veterans convened to design and develop the vehicle.

GM CEO Jack Smith drives an EV1 onto a car carrier in 1996, a month before launch.

Everything was revolutionary. Electric propulsion. Aluminum structure. Regenerative braking. Unparalleled aerodynamics. All designed for the lightest possible weight and maximum efficiency for a vehicle that, as one GM executive remembered, aimed to alter the very DNA of the automobile. From a technical standpoint, it did.

Nearly 100 new EV models are expected to reach U.S. roads through 2024, and global carmakers have spent hundreds of billions to usher in a new age of electric vehicles.

Despite the EV1's position in that lineage, the car's legacy remains fractured: It foreshadowed the future. It was a compliance car. An engineering marvel. A financial drain. A missed opportunity.

All these years later, the EV1's engineers, executives and enthusiasts believe the car's complete story remains untold. In light of the vehicle's 25th anniversary, Automotive News interviewed approximately three dozen people involved with the car.

This is their story, told in their words. In some cases, quotes have been lightly edited or condensed for clarity. People are identified by their titles at the time unless otherwise noted.

The solar-powered Sunraycer’s success in 1987 led GM to explore electrification.

CHAPTER 1: First forays into alternative propulsion

The saga of the EV1 began in the late 1980s, when GM, its subsidiary Hughes Aircraft and California engineering company AeroVironment collaborated to build a solar-powered vehicle called the Sunraycer, which won the inaugural World Solar Challenge in 1987. It beat its nearest competitor in the cross-Australia race by more than 20 hours.

Intrigued by alternative powertrains, the three companies next tinkered with electric vehicles and developed the Impact concept, which debuted at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. A few months later, in the twilight of his tenure, GM CEO Roger Smith surprised just about everybody by announcing the intent to actually make a production version of the Impact.

The Impact concept, precursor to the EV1, debuted at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show.
What they said

Excerpts from select news stories, reviews and commentaries about the EV1:

"The move does give the company the right to claim that it is the first since the earliest days of the automobile to market a commercial car designed specifically for electric propulsion. The announcement also helps disarm critics who have accused the industry of dragging its feet on electric car production."
— "G.M., in a First, Will Sell a Car Designed for Electric Power This Fall," The New York Times, Jan. 5, 1996

"The price of the EV1 will be about $35,000, plus $7,000 for a Hughes charger that cuts recharging time to three to four hours. It takes twice that long to recharge on an ordinary electrical outlet.
"Today the electric car is a toy, and a mighty expensive toy at that."
— "CARB accepted the inevitable in killing EV edict," Automotive News editorial, April 8, 1996

"The stakes are enormous. If the vehicle succeeds, the hegemony of the internal combustion engine could be broken. ...
"If the EV1 bombs — and there is no shortage of doubters — it could relegate the electric car to the compost heap of history once and for all, while setting back alternative-fuel vehicle development for decades."
— "GM Rolls Dice With Roll-Out of Electric Car," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 5, 1996

"Obviously, EV1 'ownership' isn't for everyone, but there will be those who like the statement an electric car makes. And with the EV1 being such an admirable engineering and driving exercise, why not? We were all smiles until the reality of the limited recharging infrastructure reared its ugly head."
— "1997 GM EV1 – The First Consumer Ready Electric Vehicle vs. The Real World," Motor Trend, Jan. 2, 1997

"We can't predict how it will pan out, but we can observe that the EV1 has limited appeal right now. It is quiet, it performs well, and it emits no pollution, but the range problems, the recharging time, and the high purchase cost are obstacles that will have to be overlooked or overcome before the EV1 presents a viable alternative to gas-powered cars. Still, it's a start."
"Tested: 1997 General Motors EV1 Proves to Be the Start of Something Big," Car and Driver, March 1997

Alec Brooks, vice president of the electromechanical center, AeroVironment: "The idea of building the Impact concept was, 'Well, why don't we put our heads together and figure out what a modern electric car could be like, using all the ideas that we had on Sunraycer and new advancements on batteries and electronics and motors.' ... This was September 1988, and Roger Smith approved it and gave it a 15-month time window to be done."

Dennis Minano, vice president of public policy and chief environmental officer, GM: "One of the elements in terms of preparing the company for the future is that we really wanted to demonstrate our capability in the engineering and the innovation space."

Smith: “We’ve taken a big step.”

Roger Smith, at the 1990 L.A. Auto Show: "We've taken a big step, a very big step. The Impact is a genuine full-performance machine with capabilities that rival those of today's internal combustion cars. ... The Impact is an experimental vehicle, not now ready for production. On the other hand, it was designed to be producible."

Don Runkle, vice president of engineering in North America and president of energy and engine management during the EV1 years, GM: "Roger Smith and I went out and debuted it, and he said, 'Runkle, this is the greatest concept car we've ever had. We've got to put this in production.' I said, 'Roger, just keep in mind what we have here. We've got about a gallon of gasoline worth of energy in those 870 pounds of batteries, and we effectively re- fuel it with a syringe.' ... He prevailed. He was the boss, and that led to the EV1."

Pete Savagian, power electronics engineer, Hughes Aircraft: "I worked on radar systems for fighter aircraft. After the L.A. Auto Show, I remember talking with some of the engineers around the cafeteria lunch table, and we thought, 'That's kind of odd. Can you really make an electric car? Would it be any good? What would it be like? What could it be like?' During the course of a sandwich, we went through first principles and reasoned you could make a commuter car with 60, maybe 80, miles of range."

Don Runkle: "You always worry, 'Are you bringing out a product before its time?' "

John Dabels, chief marketing officer, EV1 program: "Roger had bought Hughes; he bought Electronic Data Systems; he started Saturn. Every single one of those is cash, and the divisions are all seeing cash drained out and market share going down 10 points. Then Roger, at the end of his tenure, introduces this car, and it's saying: 'Not only did I start Saturn, which will never make money, we're going to have another product drain cash.' That's his last proclamation, and the divisions basically give him the finger. That set the stage for EV1."

Byron McCormick, managing director, GM's Delco Propulsion Systems: "Roger Smith says, 'We're going to make one.' Well, that was really exciting. But the Impact had nothing to do with anything you'd ever put on the road. It was just a show car. So there was this, 'Oh, my God, what now?' moment once we started working on the vehicle."

The Impact test team at GM’s proving ground in Mesa, Ariz.

CHAPTER 2: From concept to road-worthy

Smith affirmed GM's intentions to make a production version of the Impact in July 1990. He retired at the end of the month. Bob Stempel replaced him and proved every bit as enthusiastic about the company's electric future. But making progress on the groundbreaking advances needed in batteries, electronics, cooling, aerodynamics and structure was arduous.

Bob Purcell, head of advanced technology, GM: "Stempel had developed the catalytic converter and closed-loop pollution control. General Motors had been at the forefront of all the fundamental technologies in the industry. That was GM's heritage, and GM needed to reassert itself as the industry's technology leader. It needed to be the company that people look to when they wanted to understand what's next."

Jim Ellis, chief engineer, GM: "AeroVironment was very knowledgeable with advanced engineering, but they had no background in production. The car itself was a shell, a tinker-toy operation underneath."

Bob Galyen, battery engineer, EV1 program: "We changed the EV1 design somewhat to get more energy because the original Impact car had a lot of features that you would not be able to take easily into production."

Arianna Kalian, engineer, EV1 program: "Our leaders opened the door and said, 'Think creatively.' There weren't any preconceived boundaries. No one had been in a role for decades saying, 'We always do it this way.' It was a great environment for a young engineer."

George Claypole, engineer, GM: "I'll never forget. The Impact is in the hallway, this spaceship-looking thing. Holy moly. We do a little preliminary work, and they say, 'George, you got a real problem. We have to learn to cool this ... or else this doesn't work.' I'm a traditional Roman Catholic. I said a prayer in my mind."

Ken Baker, program manager for GM's electric vehicle program: "The folks at AeroVironment were purists. It was very frustrating for them that we had to productionize things in order to be able to produce them in a plant, assemble them at line rates and those kind of things. ... It was, 'You're putting cow plop on my beautiful picture.' "

George Claypole: "We were trying to get that aerodynamic drag down. We are chewing up wind tunnel time, and all the other programs can't get in there. They are ready to revolt. [Chief engineer] Jon Bereisa says to me, 'George, if you get this thing to 0.19, we will meet our range targets. I look at Jon and say, 'Do you drink? Maybe we should go to the bar before we go to the wind tunnel.' "

Pete Savagian: "George, he was the emotional spirit of that vehicle. He was super maniacal on efficiency."

EV1: A Legacy in a New LightFIRST IN CHARGE: 25 years ago, GM rolled out the EV1, a triumph of electrification that ended in a crushing blow. But the car planted the seed for the industry embrace of EVs now. Read how those who lived the saga remember it.
EV1: A Legacy in a New Light >
Galyen: Design had to change

Bob Galyen: "That's why it had that funky-looking teardrop shape. ... It was kind of like riding a jolt wagon because the tires had such a high compression in them, and it was for keeping the rolling resistance low."

In the summer of 1991, Ken Baker, leader of the EV1 project, had his team decamp from GM's Global Technical Center in Warren, Mich., and convene at nearby Our Lady of Redemption Melkite Catholic Church.

Ken Baker: "We rented this space in the basement of the church as a place where we could get all the teams together cross-functionally. Then we'd have a weekly review, and those were affectionately referred to as come-to-Jesus meetings. We felt like at times we even had God on our side."

An EV1 at the Mojave Desert home of renowned aerospace engineer Burt Rutan

CHAPTER 3: Storm clouds and smiles

Just as Smith retired, the U.S. fell into a recession in July 1990. Amid the downturn, GM's financial position took a precarious turn as the automaker grappled with dwindling market share and soaring costs, imperiling the future of both the EV1 program and the company itself.

Don Runkle: "Making a fast electric car is not a problem. Making it fast with long range and reliable motors and low cost, that's a problem."

John Dabels: "We were in a meeting with [GM's Vice Chairman] Jack Smith. Four of us on our side. I don't know how Jack knew this because I don't recall him looking at his watch. But right at 5 o'clock, he stands up and says, 'Excuse me, I need to leave.' And then he looks at Stempel and says, 'Bob, you can't afford the program' and walks out."

Special Report Podcasts: The saga, from bright beginnings to crushing end

Two weeks later, Jack Smith led one of the most infamous board insurrections in U.S. corporate history. Stempel was forced to resign on Oct. 26, 1992. Smith, installed as CEO, did not outright kill the EV1 program, but he scaled back plans from a production run of 20,000 vehicles to 50 hand-built prototypes that would be used in a consumer research experiment in 1994.

Pete Savagian: "GM was, at its heart, a kind of conservative company that started the initiative but wasn't really sure that it was the basis of a real car business. They had a lot of bills to pay. When you look at that with the cold light of a profit/loss on a relatively low-volume vehicle, that carries with it a lot of expense. It was a rational business decision."

John Dabels: "There was no question the company was hemorrhaging cash. But the fact is that, 'There's a fire hose over there, and here, we're talking about a faucet dripping.' But now it was, 'Gee, this costs too much.' No, it didn't cost too much, Jack."

A smaller team continued to design the prototypes. As the vehicles were put into the hands of engineers, corporate executives and eventually select customers, the instant torque and other performance characteristics generated tremendous enthusiasm.

Tim Grewe, current director of battery cell manufacturing and strategy, GM: "You felt connected to the vehicle. One of the phrases the engineers used to use was 'effortless performance.' It had that connected feel where it was just much more intuitive. The car just went where you pointed it, and it responded very intuitively with excellent transit response because you're able to have that universal gear. It was a very fun car to drive."

Burt Rutan, with his home charger, said the EV1 taught him how to drive efficiently.

Burt Rutan, EV1 customer and renowned aerospace engineer: "I always drove it like there was an eggshell on the accelerator. It taught me how to drive very, very efficiently. I almost never used the brakes. The driving habits that EV1 taught me, if I use those same driving habits on my gas car, I would get about 20 percent better miles per gallon."

Byron McCormick: "People would come back, and they didn't know why they were happy, but they had this little smile on their face. We called it the EV1 Smile."

Ken Baker: "We actually got [then-CEO of Mobil Corp.] Lou Noto into a car. He wanted to drive it, so we set it up and gave him a chance and said, 'Just drive it and see if you can refrain from smiling.' ... One of my staff took a picture of him with a smile on his face and sent it to him. The head of a gasoline company, smiling, driving an EV."

Jim Ellis: "I probably shouldn't tell you this. I used to do things at Bonneville Speedway in Utah and thought, 'This would really do well there.' One of the guys said, 'Why don't we see how fast it will go?' We took it down to a circular track in Texas, put high-speed tires on it and ran it over 180 mph."

The EV1 was leased through Saturn dealerships. Here, one store gets its first delivery.

CHAPTER 4: EV1 hits the market

By the time GM concluded its consumer research experiment, called PrEView, in 1994, the company's financial position had improved under Jack Smith's leadership. Once again, there was optimism the EV1 would enter production. In the interim, Baker had moved to a vice president R&D job, and Purcell was tapped in March 1995 to continue the car's march to production.

Bob Purcell: "When you're making a presentation inside the boardroom in New York, there's portraits of every chairman in General Motors history on the wall watching. I went to make my concluding presentation to the board, and they all start clapping. Jack Smith said, 'We're going to do the EV1, and you're going to take it to production for us.' "

On March 27, 1996, surrounded by many of its creators, the first EV1 rolled off the assembly line at the Lansing Craft Centre.

CEO Jack Smith and plant manager Maureen Midgley celebrate the EV1.

Maureen Midgley, Lansing Craft Centre plant manager: "For the manufacturing people, it was glorious. We were so proud. But for the product team, for the people who had put many, many years of their life into birthing this car, it was emotional. I'm pretty sure I saw tears in people's eyes. ...

"The EV1 was so far ahead of its time. I work for Amazon now, and we pride ourselves on being very innovative. But back in the day, Jim Ellis led a team of product engineers that were true believers in the technology."

Then the EV1 was ready for prime time: dealer showrooms. The plan was to lease, not sell the EV1, which meant GM could learn from customer data and keep tabs on a vehicle with a new type of powertrain.

GM officially unveiled the EV1 on Dec. 5, 1996, at the red carpet premiere of Sylvester Stallone's film Daylight.

Maureen Midgley: "It was a lot of Hollywood. I had never seen General Motors plug into the Hollywood scene. We were a very conservative company, and we really did it up big for the EV1 launch."

Bob Purcell: "It was the car to be seen in and the Tesla Model S of its era. I can't tell you how many celebrities we had at events in Southern California. Sylvester Stallone was one of our customers. He'd say, 'Hey Bob, why don't you bring some cars to my new movie?' We were walking the red carpet. Behind me is Billy Joel. That was the world we were living in. We were the car to be seen in, and every celebrity, they all wanted an EV1."

GM launched its first TV ad for the EV1. The ad, called "Appliances," cost $1.5 million to produce, The Washington Post said at the time. It was created by Hal Riney & Partners, the firm behind President Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection ad known for the opening line: "It's morning again in America."

As if out of a science fiction novel, a group of household electronics — a toaster, waffle iron, vacuum cleaner, power tools, lamps — rush out of a home to gaze at an EV1 cruising down the suburban street. A voice-over by actress Linda Hunt announces, "The electric car is here." The ad was nominated for an Emmy in 1997.

GM leased EV1s through Saturn dealerships in California, Arizona and later Georgia. EV1 specialists were responsible for market areas to facilitate the leases. They screened each customer to ensure an electric vehicle would fit their lifestyles. If customers had a 100-mile round-trip commute, an EV1 wouldn't work for them. If customers couldn't get a charger into their garages, an EV1 would be out of the question.

Peter Hoffman, then dealership group vice president, now owner, Sierra Autocars in Monrovia, Calif.: Leasing through the dealerships "wasn't a bad system. It just divorced us from the marketing. One of the concerns we had with the ad is it didn't really say Saturn. It never said Saturn. It was always a General Motors ad. People didn't come to the Saturn stores looking for an EV because that wasn't their strategy. ...

"Vehicle allocation was a pull system, a genuine pull system. They were filling the pipeline as the pipeline emptied. They didn't push. I think it cost us about $10,000 a store to prepare for the EV1. There wasn't much potential for a return there. I don't even think we made the amount that we'd spent on the facility to prepare for charging and display."

From 1996 to 1999, GM built about 1,100 EV1s. To EV1 specialists, the vehicle was a viable program with potentially high volume in the long run.

The specialists faced occasional sales hurdles and realized demand could be low in cold-weather climates at first. But they didn't count those hurdles as roadblocks. Instead, they were incentives to show consumers nationwide the benefits of owning EVs.

Chelsea Sexton hugs Paul Scott at a vigil in Burbank, Calif. Sexton, once an EV1 sales specialist, became an advocate and followed trucks that took the cars to be crushed.

CHAPTER 5: Demand debate

Much of the passion came from high-profile customers, such as aerospace engineer Rutan and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. When the EV1 was recalled for potential charging fires in 2000, Rutan ignored GM's calls and tried to keep the car from the automaker.

Burt Rutan: "I hid my car. I parked it beyond the fence that you find at airports so it was in an area where airplanes can go, but cars are not supposed to go. They did get it when I was out of town. My wife let them in."

By 1998, advertising was scarce, largely because of budget cuts and low EV1 volume. Passionate customers even made EV1 ads themselves. Marvin Rush, a cinematographer on "Star Trek Voyager," spent $20,000 to produce and air four radio ads for the EV1.

Demand was consistently debated. Some said the market was extremely limited, while others said consumers lined up to lease it or purchase it, which GM didn't allow.

Dave Barthmuss, a GM spokesman during the EV1 era, would later tell employees that a waiting list of 5,000 consumers led to only 50 lease customers. Suppliers stopped making replacement parts for the vehicle, complicating future repair and safety.

Joe Kennedy, vice president of sales, service and marketing for Saturn: "I remember maybe once EV1 hit 20 in a single day, and that was a big day. But the truth is, in the grand scheme of things, that's a very disappointing number."

Ken Baker: "I had people come into my office literally with a briefcase full of money and want to buy their car. There was a lot of passion behind the product, but it wasn't a high-volume car."

GM leadership scrutinized the budget for the cash-draining project. By 1999, the automaker had installed more efficient nickel-metal hydride batteries in the EV1, doubling the range to up to 160 miles. But the batteries still cost a hefty $10,000 per pack.

And GM executives and board members wanted to invest in the gas-guzzling Hummer lineup, along with other full-size SUVs and pickups, while gas prices were less than $1 per gallon in many markets. Purcell doubted the low gas prices would last and wanted to keep an EV option in the portfolio with the Chevrolet Triax, short for tri-axle. The Triax concept had three engine configurations: electric, internal combustion or hybrid. GM nixed the idea.

Bob Purcell: "I was a car guy in a land of bookkeepers. GM saw themselves as an institution; there's one way you do things."

Alan Cocconi, who helped develop the Impact before founding AC Propulsion: "Some people within GM had enthusiasm for the EV1. I saw that. So it's not everybody. But the higher level certainly never embraced it. Everything was set up so they could maintain control and make sure that it didn't have to be a long-term project."

In the late 1990s, negotiations between GM and the California Air Resources Board became increasingly tense. GM disagreed with the state's zero- and low-emission goals that automakers would have to follow.

John Dabels: "There's this little two-person table in the executive dining room. I'm sitting there with Sam Leonard, the chief environmental lobbyist for GM at the time. He says, 'Dabels, you're my worst enemy.' I said, 'Wait a minute, how can that be? We work for the same company.' He says, 'I'm out there lobbying that there is no demand for electric vehicles, and you're proving me wrong.' So there was this internal conflict, which I think is one of the downfalls."

Ken Stewart, who led marketing for the EV1 in its final years as brand manager and director of GM's new ventures: "I often told people, 'Outside of the Renaissance Center, I was a hero because I was head of GM's EV1 electric car program from a customer-interface perspective. But inside the Renaissance Center, I was like a stepchild because I was in charge of this silly little science experiment project that wouldn't make money.

"Right around '99, especially in 2000 and 2001, there was a sea change for a lot of things at GM. It was, 'Oh, my God, we can't seem to make money on anything except big trucks. What do we do?' And EV1 was no longer the mobility trophy program. It was now being measured by conventional car program needs. Each vehicle line had a P&L statement. EV1 was miserable. It was sort of death by a thousand cuts at that point."

The EV1 funeral in 2003, with bagpiper, was a PR stunt but proved heartfelt.

CHAPTER 6: Farewell to the EV1

GM built the last EV1 in 1999. By 2003, terms for the last remaining leases were expiring, and GM demanded that customers give the cars back. Some of them were reluctant, begging to buy the cars, but GM turned them down.

Chelsea Sexton, EV1 sales specialist: "When they were leased, we didn't promise customers they'd be able to buy the car they had, but we did, as the corporate line, condition them to expect this is going to continue. We were all-in."

Ken Stewart: "Our plan completely was, 'We're not taking your car from you, but when the lease is up, we're not going to offer any lease extension. We'll just take the car back.' "

Coppola was reportedly so attached to the EV1 that he was reluctant to give it up when his lease expired. Stewart arranged a visit with Coppola at his sprawling Napa Valley estate to retrieve the car.

Ken Stewart: "He invited me to dinner. We talked cars and drank wine. It was like a scene of a movie.

"Before our dinner, he said, 'Let's go for a ride.' The two of us were in his car driving around Napa Valley. He was so enthusiastic about the car, and he kept pointing out things. He said, 'Next time you do a car, do this differently, make this bigger, change this, it really could use that.' He was wonderful and very optimistic.

"While I was having dinner, the team was loading up the flatbed and taking his car home.

"The whole evening was delightful, but I also felt like a repo man because I got the car. He knew I was coming to get the car, but he didn't know that we were backing up the flatbed while I was having another glass of wine. Nobody was stealing anything because he saw us drive away, but it was just kind of a funny way that it all came about."

Coppola's reps could not be reached for comment.

With efforts by EV1 enthusiasts to save the car drawing to a close, they staged an event that was both a last-gasp effort and a fond farewell.

On July 24, 2003, they gathered at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the final resting place of silver-screen legends such as Judy Garland and Rudolph Valentino. A bagpiper led a procession that included a gleaming white hearse and approximately two dozen EV1s, silent as they rolled past the tombstones.

While it started as a public relations stunt, the funeral proved heartfelt. Actors, engineers, politicians and enthusiasts all eulogized a car that captured their imaginations and provided a viable path toward a sustainable future. Or so they thought. Among their remarks during the service:

Rabbi Brian Mayer: "Today there is a feeling of loss as we unplug the EV1. ... It is difficult to know what to say at a time like this. To be honest with you, I consulted my rabbi's manual, and there was absolutely nothing in it for the burial of a car."

Ed Begley Jr., actor: "I'm here to tell you what the detractors and critics are saying is true — the electric car is not for everybody. Given the limited range, it can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population."

Ellen Crawford, actress: "The EV1 was not a toy; it was a revelation."

Tom Gage, CEO, AC Propulsion: "We should be willing to fight for what's great in this country and willing to fight here against its enemies. Unfortunately, one of those enemies is us. We are addicted to gasoline in this country."

Eric Garcetti, then-Los Angeles city councilman and now mayor: "GM will have to pry it out of my charger's cold, dead hands."

Wally Rippel, research engineer, AeroVironment: "There are people within General Motors who have worked very, very hard, who have made this a reality, and they've done good work. They need to be remembered. I sometimes feel sorry for them that they'll be identified by society with the company which has canceled this."

Paul MacCready, founder, AeroVironment: "Batteries have zoomed ahead, and batteries for computers and cellphones are up to where they're six times better than the lead-acid cells we're using. ... It's strange no car company is turning out — or even doing research on — battery-powered cars now. There's so much in this field with lithium batteries that soon we'll show them the cars that go long distances."

Eric Garcetti: "We couldn't get the car companies to sell us what we wanted as a city and what you wanted as our constituents. ... Redouble your efforts so that we know this death is not in vain, and we will always remember you, EV1."

GM believed it had to destroy the EV1s for legal and safety reasons, but enthusiasts were outraged.

CHAPTER 7: Crushed

In the weeks and months following the funeral, GM crushed the cars at its proving ground in the Arizona desert. GM believed it had to destroy the cars for legal and safety reasons. But when photos of the flattened cars leaked, the crushing eviscerated a decade's worth of goodwill that GM had garnered from the EV1 program.

Bob Purcell: "That was an unbelievable day in my life. Me and Jon Bereisa were at the Smithsonian, where the EV1 was honored in a ceremony. We're in a restaurant afterward watching the crushing on the news. Jon looks at me and says, 'Bob, are we in a parallel universe?' "

Don Runkle: "I'm not actually negative about the idea of crushing them. Because they have fulfilled the job they were meant to do. Now there's no reason to have them around."

Ken Baker: "Crushing them was a pretty dramatic act. I don't personally think that was necessary. I tried very hard to buy serial No. 1, because it had been my birthday present, and I couldn't even do that."

Maureen Midgley: "It almost made me sick. Think about it. We had a zero-emissions vehicle. I think there were people in the company that were so mad at the state of California that maybe it was trying to poke California back. But all they did was poke themselves in the eye. It was a disaster from a public relations standpoint, but just from a core value, I never understood."

Stewart: Special visit to Coppola

Ken Stewart: "The primary reason those were crushed was GM's legal team was 10 times larger than my sales and service staff. They were quite concerned about the liability of the cars for years in the future because it was high voltage. They were afraid people were going to tinker with them."

Chelsea Sexton, who had departed GM and become a leading EV advocate: "When the trucks came to take the vehicles to the proving ground, a couple of us ended up following them with cameras, documenting the story. We never did anything to antagonize anybody, but one of the trucks went straight and another took this very weird, circuitous route and radioed ahead to get the state troopers to stop me for stalking."

Bob Purcell: "Chelsea Sexton and ["Baywatch" actress] Alexandra Paul, I think, were getting arrested for blocking the trucks delivering the EV1s to the crusher."

Chelsea Sexton: "I was detained but never arrested. That was an important dividing line for my family. ... I had these troopers lecturing me on the side of the road about what happens in the back roads of Arizona to girls like me."

Bob Galyen: "I hated the decision at first, but later, I understood why they did it. I still didn't like the decision because I think General Motors would have put the United States into a full-blown leadership role worldwide in electrification if they hadn't called back the cars and crushed them. It was a sad day."

Elon Musk and Tesla were ready to fill the EV void.

CHAPTER 8: Exit GM, Enter Tesla

As GM crushed cars, a small California startup saw the electric vehicle opportunity ahead. Nearly two decades later, it's impossible to not wonder: Would GM, which generated such passion and enthusiasm around EVs, have been Tesla had it just stuck with electric vehicles for another cycle?

Chelsea Sexton: "One of my EV1 drivers showed up at a Burbank vigil. He's like, 'I have a buddy who wants to meet with you in the next 48 hours.' I had a plane ticket. That was my first conversation with" Tesla co-founder Martin Eberhard.

Larry Burns, vice president of R&D from 1998 to 2009, GM: "When Elon Musk would talk about, 'Oh, how exciting it is to drive the car,' and these people are driving the Roadster and stuff, I'm thinking, 'Come on. You must not have driven the EV1.' Because that instant torque was crystal clear."

Bob Purcell: "It's just very unfortunate they threw away an industry leadership position. They would have been Tesla. That's the truth. And just look at the multiples of Tesla."

George Claypole: "We flushed that all down the toilet. Holy moly."

McCormick: For GM, what might have been?

EPILOGUE: Legacy of EV1

GM CEO Rick Wagoner formally ended the EV1 program in 2003. He would later tell Motor Trend that axing the program was his worst decision. Wagoner, through representatives, declined to comment for this report.

Despite its short life, the EV1 set early precedent for electrification. It overcame what had been thought impossible and inspired the industry's reach toward electrification.

Bob Purcell: "Ken Baker was a free thinker. He was very creative. Ken made a fundamental contribution to the future of the auto industry. He created this era we're now living in and never got credit for it."

Jim Ellis: "Our first staff meeting, this is going back 30 years, Ken says very simply, 'In 30 years, GM has to know how to do electric propulsion.' These predictions don't come true that often, but he was right on with that one."

Larry Burns: "The DNA of a car was mechanically driven, combustion-powered and oil-energized. That really dominated for a century. The EV1 was the first modern car that took a crack at changing that."

Ken Stewart: "It was sort of like the Declaration of Independence in a way. So many fundamental technologies were invented in the EV1: induction charging, motors at those sizes and voltages, heat pumps, electric brakes, some of the key metals that were used for lightweighting, structural adhesives or composites. All of these things are commonplace today. And they were firsts."

Minano: “Real rocket scientists”

Dennis Minano: "They were inventing things. These were real rocket scientists that were working on this stuff. If we had stayed on that course early on, there would be no question who the technology leader is. It would be no other auto company."

Ken Baker: "My biggest problem was sending people home to get sleep because they would work all day and half the night. It was an incredibly exciting time for being with people who dared to dream, people that took the reach and went after it."

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of global product development at GM after the EV1: "If you look at it through the eyes of the bean counter, it was a catastrophic mistake, and we never should have done it. If you look at it through holistic eyes of, 'What did that experience bring us? What did we learn from it? How many highly skilled people did we train? How well did it position us for an electric vehicle future?' If you use those kind of measures, then it's a huge success."

Byron McCormick: "If the financials of GM hadn't been such as they were, just think what we might have been able to do. Sometimes I look back on it and say, 'Oh, my.' But on the other hand, just think of what it created."

A functional EV1 maintains permanent residence at the tech center in Warren.

Steve Tarnowsky, former EV1 engineer and current chief engineer for EV propulsion, GM: "There is one dedicated EV1 engineer that's still around that's allowed to keep it running."

At least 40 former EV1 engineers still work for GM, said Tarnowsky. Many are leaders on GM's proprietary Ultium battery system. But the EV1 didn't just set the stage for GM. Alums spread themselves throughout the industry, at places including CATL, Canoo, Nio, Tesla and Via Motors.

Steve Tarnowsky: "After EV1, we just kept all these other advanced projects going. Bob Purcell's mantra back then with EV1 was, 'Make a business out of it.' Now it does appear we can actually make a business out of it."

to the

Send us a letter

Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.