At General Motors, development on fuel cell vehicles reaches back more than half a century. The 1966 Electrovan, a converted GMC Handi-Bus with hydrogen-oxygen power, could reportedly do 70 mph and travel 150 miles. Here’s the story.
Their apparent potential may wax and wane over the years, but hope springs eternal for fuel cell vehicles. They offer the cleanest power available—in principle, anyway. The Electrovan, a General Motors project from 1966, is generally credited as the first working fuel cell vehicle ever produced.
A spinoff of GM’s fuel cell work with NASA, the Electrovan was based on a production GMC Handi-Bus platform, but with all the necessary equipment on board, the compact van weighed a whopping 7,100 lbs. The gear included two cryogenic tanks, one for oxygen and one for hydrogen, while lining the floor plan were 32 thin-electrode fuel cell modules connected in series. A 45-gallon reservoir and 550 feet of plastic tubing handled the potassium hydroxide electrolyte, which itself weighed 550 lbs. The general layout is shown in the GM cutaway rendering below.
Despite the considerable weight and other limitations of the technology, the Electovan could do 0-to-60 mph in 30 seconds, reach 70 mph, and travel 150 miles, according to GM. When the project was concluded, the little bus disappeared for several decades before it was rediscovered in a GM warehouse in Pontiac, Michigan in 2001. GM’s fuel cell development work is still carried out in Pontiac, while the Electrovan, shined up and looking like new, lives in the GM Heritage Collection of historic vehicles in nearby Sterling Heights. The short clip below shows the Electrovan—attractively customized by Styling VP Bill Mitchell and staff, take note—tooling around the streets of the GM Technical Center circa 1966, which is fun to see in itself. Video below.