The 1966 GM Electrovan is credited with being the first hydrogen
fuel cell car ever produced. Though fuel cells have been around
since the early 1800's, General Motors was the first to use a fuel
cell to power the wheels of a vehicle.
Electrovan Shown to Journalists
The vehicle was a 1966 GMC Handivan
on the outside. Its insides were converted into a science
lab of new technology that appeared more like a whisky
still of old.
The GM Electrovan was the brainchild of Dr. Craig Marks who headed
up most of General Motors' advanced engineering projects. Marks,
along with a staff of 250, developed the Electrovan for over 2
years before attaining a drivable vehicle.
NASA had previously used fuel cells to power onboard systems in
their Gemini spacecraft. Those hydrogen fuel cells produced water
as a byproduct, which the astronauts were then able to drink.
The GM Electrovan used a fuel cell produced by Union Carbide, which
was fueled by both super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
Today's fuel cells use less pure oxygen that is native in the
outside air. The Electrovan had one large tank for the hydrogen
and one for the oxygen and contained 550-feet of piping throughout
the rear of the vehicle, turning this 6-seat van into a 2-seater
with barely enough room for 2 passengers.
General Motors Electrovan Illustration
The Union Carbide 5 kw fuel cell (rated at 1,000 hours of use)
was able to propel the GM Electrovan for top speeds between 63 -
70 mph. The Electrovan also had a range of 120 miles, which was
not too shabby for 1966. Because of safety concerns, the Electrovan
was only used on company property, where it had several mishaps
along the way.
From the outset, the idea was to use a Corvair as the first hydrogen
fuel cell vehicle and call it Electrovair. But, GM soon discovered
that a leak with the electrolyte used caused "brilliant fireworks",
plus it weighed 550 lbs. and needed to be housed in a larger vehicle.
There was also the incident of the exploding hydrogen tank, which
injured no one but sent pieces flying a quarter of a mile, which
was of great concern and extra safety precautions needed to be
taken to insure that no one working on the project was injured.
After the GM Electrovan was built, tested and shown off to journalists
in 1966, the project was scrapped largely because it was cost-prohibitive.
The platinum used in the fuel cell was enough to "buy a whole
fleet of vans" and there was absolutely no supporting hydrogen
infrastructure in place at that time.
General Motors tried to give the Electrovan to the Smithsonian
Institution, but they declined the vehicle for reasons that are
still not clear. For years, the Electrovan sat in cold storage
in a warehouse in Pontiac, Michigan, avoiding the crusher on several
occasions. Then it was transported to the General Motors Heritage
Center near Detroit. Recently, the GM Electrovan was taken for
display and shown off at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los
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GM Electrovan History
Images are courtesy of the GM Heritage Center
Written by Hydro Kevin Kantola