The First Motor Vehicle Powered by Fuel Cells Was…a Van


The revolution in electromobility is gaining momentum. More and more automotive manufacturers are introducing electric cars to their offer, and some brands are completely eliminating models with combustion engines from their portfolio. Electric drives are also gaining popularity among commercial vehicles such as vans, and, although to a lesser extent, trucks and semi-tractor units –with an increasing tendency from year to year. The situation of vehicles powered by fuel cells, or in simple terms –hydrogen, is slightly different. Hydrogen-powered vehicles –both passenger and commercial –are still less common and still constitute a small part of the market. An interesting fact is that the first vehicle with fuel cells was a van, i.e. a typical utility car. Let’s find out his story.

Alternative drives in the automotive industry

In one of our previous articles, we wondered what the future of road transport would be: electricity or hydrogen. We briefly presented the development of alternative propulsion sources to the dominant combustion engine. Electric vehicles, which run on batteries that need recharging, saw some popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, they were regarded as ideal for city driving;their short range wasn’t a major issue in urban traffic. At that time, Detroit Electric (passenger cars) and Walker Electric Truck (commercial vehicles) were operating dynamically in the USA, albeit for a short period of time. The increasing performance of internal combustion engines, combined with low fuel prices at the time, meant that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, electric vehicles were relegated to the niche of slow, specialized commercial vehicles such as golf carts and the small milk delivery trucks popular in the UK. And they remained in this niche basically until the beginning of the 21st century, when the e-mobility boom started. The automotive industry dabbled in electric drive systems, of course, but the vehicles designed were experimental or unique modelsFor example, in 1939, Skoda unveiled a one-off specialized electric beer transport truck for a brewery in Plzeň.

Fuel cells seemed to be an even more ephemeral technology in the automotive industry. Although they were invented in 1889, it was not until over 70 years later that they were first used as a power source for a motor vehicle (and it took another few decades for fuel cells to be used in mass-produced cars). Interestingly, the first car powered by fuel cells (but not by hydrogen as such, because experiments related to the use of this gas to power engines date back to the early 19th century) was…a delivery vehicle, not a passenger vehicle.

The first car powered by fuel cells

The project of a car powered by fuel cells was born in the early 1960s in the American General Motors. The 1950s and 1960s were a period when the “Big Three”from Detroit worked on designs for vehicles with alternative power sources. It wasn’t about finding savings, because fuel was very cheap back then, or about ecological reasons, which few people cared about back then. Engineers from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors wanted to demonstrate a technological advantage over the competition. Chrysler presented the Turbine model powered by a turbine engine. 50 units were produced for testing, which selected drivers –loyal customers of the brand –had to return after the project was completed. Ford was working on the Nucleon, which was to be equipped with…a nuclear reactor. In this case, the research was completed at an early stage, which was probably a good thing. General Motors chose hydrogen fuel cells, which were famous in the US at the time because they were used to power the internal systems of NASA spacecraft called “Gemini”. And so the GM Electrovan was born.

United States Department of Energy, Public Domain

GM Electrovan [on the right] (Author: United States Department of Energy, Public Domain, Wikipedia)

The project was led by Dr. Craig Marks, who was then spearheading much of the company’s advanced engineering research. Initially, the Corvair model was planned to be used as the basis for a fuel cell car –a compact car with a boxer engine located at the rear (it was supposed to be GM’s response to the success of the German Volkswagen Beetle). However, during the work it turned out that the 32 fuel cells provided by Union Carbide, as well as the tanks for liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen and electrolyte, were too large and too heavy (250 kg) to fit in the Corvair. There was also over 160 meters of piping. It became obvious that a larger car was needed. So the engineers chose the Chevrolet Van utility van (or more precisely, its variant sold under the GMC brand –Handivan;here’s another interesting fact: this model was also developed as a response to Volkswagen’s product, this time the Transporter van).

The entire hydrogen installation took up most of the Electrovan’s cargo space, with only enough room for the driver and passenger. There is also a small research laboratory at the back. The GM Electrovan saw the light of day in 1966 after two years of development. At that time, the project encountered a number of problems, not only related to the weight of the fuel cells and tanks, but also related to safety, because during the tests the hydrogen tank exploded (fortunately, there were no casualties). Despite the difficulties, engineers led by Dr. Marks managed to create a groundbreaking design: the first car powered by fuel cells. The performance, for 1966, was also nothing to be ashamed of: the maximum speed was approximately 110 km/h and the range was approximately 193 km. Especially since the Electrovan weighed over 3 tons.

What happened to the GM Electrovan?

After the Electrovan was presented to the press, GM decided to end the project. Why? Because it turned out to be too expensive (for example the platinum used in fuel cells alone cost a small fortune), and there was no future in it at that time. The hydrogen refueling infrastructure did not exist, the installation was too heavy and there were still questions about its safety. The only prototype built ended up in a GM warehouse in Pontiac, Michigan, for decades. It was only a decade or so ago, when fuel cells began to be more widely used in the automotive industry, and people began to remember the old Electrovan prototype. It was renovated and is now displayed in a museum in Los Angeles.