The first fuel cell on wheels

A look back at the first hydrogen fuel cell-powered car.

The first fuel cell car was developed by which company, when?

The GM Electrovan: Stunningly, the world's first fuel-cell car.Photo by Carey Russ

Surprise answer: General Motors, in 1966. (Sound of jaws dropping in the audience, no doubt...)

The Electrovan looked like a GMC van on the outside, but inside it looked like Mad Scientist City. Developed by Craig Marks and associates, the Electrovan had a Union Carbide fuel cell that used liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Yes, it was rocket science. Hydrogen fuel cells need oxygen, which, while amply available here on Earth, is a "bring your own" commodity in space. Fuel cells, at that time, were space-capsule technology.

I saw the Electrovan in person when the California Fuel Cell Partnership hydrogen-refueling station in West Sacramento, Calif., was opened back in 2000. It was a static display, and a fascinating piece of history. Think Leonardo da Vinci's helicopter, only actually built. Well, maybe not quite that futuristic, but close.

Ah, the analog era!Photo by Carey Russ

The electronic miniaturization that we take for granted today was in the distant future in the mid-'60s. Computers, if not rooms full of vacuum tubes, were still room-size beasts with discrete components, and control logic for the Electrovan's systems was more likely some engineer's brain than any bits of silicon or germanium. The van was chosen because that was what the fuel cell and its supporting tanks and circuitry could fit into.

Peering into the interior, I got the feeling that driving the Electrovan was a group effort, not unlike flying an aircraft in the pilot/co-pilot/flight engineer days. There was quite an array of controls and instrumentation on the instrument panel, in addition to the regular speedometer.

Watch your feet, and seat.Photo by Carey Russ

The side doors were open--minivan sliding doors were about 20 years in the future--allowing a view of the rear seat. Mmm, looked warm in there with all that heavy-duty electrical stuff underneath. The size of the wiring indicated that many, many amperes passed through them! The fuel cell was stored underneath the seat.

The hot seat?Photo by Carey Russ

I poked my nose inside for a better look. There I saw a very funky-looking wooden knife switch. In the photo you can see that wood was an insulator, those were heavy-gauge wires, and there must have been some current going through. Plenty of gauges everywhere, "telemetry" by pen and paper, no doubt.

In the back, two large spherical tanks stored liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Somewhere in the van was a refrigeration system to keep those liquids liquid. That could explain the massive wiring.

But there was also a flash of recognition, and I turned to a colleague and said, "Look! Dual Webers!" We both bent over in laughter.

Dual Webers!Photo by Carey Russ

Hey, I can't help it; I grew up on a TV diet of moose and squirrel, and so I can't resist a good (or bad) pun. The tanks looked just like your basic Weber kettle-barbecue units. And Weber carburetors were the standard for high-performance applications before the advent of fuel injection. So, the only question was: sidedraft or downdraft?

The Electrovan did run, but because of the possible hazards of liquid hydrogen and oxygen on public roads, it ran only on GM property, never on public roads. Decades ahead of its time, it is a fascinating example of what could be done back in the era of huge corporate research and development budgets. Think the automotive equivalent of Bell Labs.