This streamlined, futuristic little hatchback is nothing short of genesis for GM’s present-day all-electric revolution. The practical Chevy Bolt EUV, the luxurious Cadillac Lyriq, the ground-pounding GMC Hummer EV – each owes a debt to the two-door you see here. This is the first mass-produced electric vehicle by a major automaker of the modern era, and it was decades ahead of its time. This is the GM EV1.
Pictured here on display at the recently reopened Petersen Automotive Museum, this particular example is one of just a handful of GM EV1 models still in existence – surprising, considering its importance.
The origin of the GM EV1 dates back to 1990 with the debut of the all-electric Impact concept at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Developed by EV company AeroVironment, which leveraged lessons learned during GM’s run in the 1987 World Solar Challenge, the Impact generated a huge response, and plans for a production version were quickly put into place.
Although GM had dabbled in all-electric drivetrains before (the earliest examples date back to 1912, with follow-up efforts in the ‘60s and ‘70s thanks to models like the Electrovair and Electrovette), the new production-ready Impact would be different. Rather than converting an existing ICE-powered vehicle to electric power, the new EV would be designed from the ground up for electric propulsion, leveraging the latest technology. By the late ‘90s, the GM had released its new all-electric vehicle – the GM EV1.
Interestingly, customers couldn’t buy the new GM EV1, as it was only offered via lease, and only to customers in Southern California and Arizona. The first units produced were allocated to high-profile individuals like celebrities and politicians, each of which was deemed a participant in “real-world engineering evaluation.”
Specs for the first-generation GM EV1 included a 16.5-kWh lead-acid battery providing upwards of 60 miles of range. Output was derived from a three-phase alternating current induction motor driving the front wheels with 137 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. Top speed was electronically limited at 80 mph.
General Motors later released a second generation with a new nickel metal hydride battery, lower overall weight, and lower production costs. Range was boosted to 100 miles.
While futuristic and technologically advanced, the GM EV1 was eventually discontinued, and production was halted in 1999. In 2003, GM officially canceled the EV1 program, stating that the vehicles were unprofitable, and that due to the high costs of maintenance and service infrastructure, all existing units would be returned to GM. In total, 1,117 examples of the GM EV1 were built during its short lifespan.
Despite the protests of a legion of drivers and passionate fans, the majority of GM EV1s were subsequently dismantled. The few remaining examples (rough estimates put it at about 40) were either donated to educational institutions and museums, or otherwise lost.
Whatever the reason for its discontinuation, there’s no doubt that the GM EV1 was a pivotal moment for General Motors. Now, as the automaker prepares to launch 30 new EV models by 2025, the GM EV1 continues to serve as a reminder of lessons (hopefully) learned.