Classic Cars

Enfield Electric Car

The energy crisis of the 1970s spawned a dash for electricity. Martin Buckley meets folk who've never switched back

In the Seventies, it was widely predicted that by the turn of the century we'd all be wearing beige jumpsuits and driving electric cars. None of it turned out to be true, which is a relief.

However, the 1970s energy crisis did produce several attempts to build battery-powered commuter runabouts. Even before it looked like the fuel was going to run out, there were various half-arsed attempts, such as the battery-powered Renault 10 marketed in America as the Mars II.

In fact, the Standard Catalogue of American Cars shows that the Americans - who had the cheapest fuel - were the most enthusiastic about electric power. The book lists a dozen or more hare-brained projects.

As in Europe, most of them fell at the first hurdle. But the Enfield is memorable because it was a British effort that actually went into limited production. The 1973 Enfield project was partly backed, not unreasonably, by the Electricity Council. In fact, of the 120 Enfields built, 65 were used by the council's workers and local electricity boards in the south of England (they didn't want to be too far from the factory) until the late 1970s, when the accountants decided it would be better to go back to diesels.

With the public, the Enfield was an unmitigated flop - in spite of the Daily Mirror's attempt to give 10 of them away in a competition - and production ended in 1977.

For the price of a Rover 3500, here was a tiny, utilitarian two-seater with goofy styling (it looked like one of the cars Inspector Clouseau drives in the Pink Panther cartoon series), a top speed (with a following wind) of 48mph and a range of maybe 40 miles between charge-ups.

Range was the main problem for the Enfield: it wasn't as if you could charge it up at any filling station. And the batteries on today's electric cars and hybrids are much lighter.

Despite its high price, the Enfield - built at a rate of one a week on the Isle of Wight by a Greek shipping magnate called John Goulandris - had few creature comforts (not even a heater; some later owners fitted the petrol heaters that lorry drivers use to warm their cabs during overnight stops) and a limited choice of colours: orange, red, white and yellow.

But the car was well made, with a tubular chassis and aluminium body. The doors were derived from a Mini, as were the wheels. The rear axle came from a Reliant three-wheeler.

On the road, the car was simplicity itself to drive, with no gears, nifty handling and a remarkably cosseting ride on its Hillman Imp-derived suspension. The sheer weight of the batteries - split 50/50 front and rear for good traction - simply smothered bumps.

Initially, up to 20mph or so, acceleration felt brisk but soon tailed away to virtually nothing as the cars 8bhp electric motor struggled with the hefty 2,100lb weight (the same as a Ford Escort). It was not that quiet either - the generators hummed quite loudly - so there was no chance of sneaking up on pedestrians.

The survival rate of the Enfield is good and the car has some committed fans in the Battery Vehicle Society ( www.bvs.org.uk) where mint examples can change hands for £30,00.

Dave Woodbury is an entertainment agent, based in Bournemouth, who has owned his since 1978. He has used it everyday clocking up 44,000 miles. Mecca - as in the bingo halls - used his 1976 car as a promotional vehicle for Eric Morley.

"It had only done 100 miles at two years old and was virtually like brand new" says Woodbury who, at the height of his enthusiasm for the Enfield, ran three of them. "I bought two others from electricity-board auction. One sold at Christie's for a profit and another I sold to a chap in Dorset who uses it every day." His wife used even drove a second Enfield until she decided she wanted something a little bit faster she could get the children into; today the Woodburys have a conventional diesel car for longer trips. "But," says Woodbury, "the Enfield is probably used more - it's more useful than you might think, as most of our journeys are short."

The only maintenance is topping up batteries and tyre pressures. Otherwise you turn the key and drive. It starts instantly summer and winter, there is no road tax, and it is exempt from the London congestion charge. The built-in charger tops up the batteries overnight. It takes about five hours and costs less than £1."I don't notice it on my bill," says Woodbury.

The lead-acid batteries don't like cold weather and the range halves in freezing conditions to about 15 miles. The batteries are guaranteed for four years but can last seven with careful usage. They cost about £1,200 for a new set. "With brand new batteries in summer it might do 30-40 miles," says Woodbury, "but it was never designed for long-distance motoring: I use it for popping to the shops and doing other errands so mostly I don't even charge it everyday. I just glance at the trip meter to know how far I have to go and, in fact, it gives you every indication its running out - unlike a petrol car - because it just goes slower and slower. I can usually limp home."

Dave Woodbury's Enfield has been uprated to 72 volts, which gives more acceleration: it does 0-30mph in five seconds, so it doesn't get in the way of other traffic. "It's a bit cold at the moment with no heater but I just wrap up well; you don't mind being a bit cold when you think of the money you are saving. A pound to do 20-30 miles?"

But he admits that the Enfield is the cause of some amusement. "It's been described as "Chariot of Wire" in the local paper and children laugh and point at it and call me Postman Pat, but I have the last laugh at the petrol pumps!"

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