Back To The Future: What Were Electric Cars Like Pre-2000s?

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Some of you may not know this, but the hype around electric cars isn’t a new thing. In fact, as far back as the 1970s the UK automotive industry turned up its production of electric cars, prompted by an oil crisis that caused fuel prices to rocket.

Sound familiar? That’s because we’re in a similar pickle in the UK right now. Fuel prices have reached a record high in 2022 and this has only eased slightly in recent weeks.

Demand for electric cars spiked during the 70s as people sought cheaper forms of power for their cars. But what were the options like?

In this blog, we take a closer look at the electric cars available to buy during the 70s, 80s and 90s.


Milk floats – early 1900’s

Electric Milk Float
  • Price at the time: £350
  • Estimated range: 50 miles
  • Top speed: 20mph
  • Acceleration: Unknown

Now these were the real pioneers of electric mobility on UK roads.

After replacing the first milkmens’ horse and carts at the turn of the 20th century, the electric milk float took off. Their popularity continued to increase, so much so that in the 1970s, more than half of UK households purchased milk from a milkman whizzing round in a milk float.

Even today, the milk float is making its comeback. Fresh milk deliveries are being made by electric float vans up and down the country. How nostaglic!


Enfield 8000 – 1973

  • Price at the time: £2,800
  • Estimated range: 40-50 miles
  • Top speed: 40mph
  • Acceleration: Unknown

It was painfully slow, had two seats and a range between charges that’s as unromantic as its styling. However, there’s a soft spot for the Enfield 8000.

There wasn’t the technology at the time to make it as great as it could be. But nevertheless, the ambition behind its production was a valiant effort to tackle the very real problem at the time that fuel supply could dry up.

Unfortunately, demand wasn’t there due to it costing a whopping £2,800 at the time. Considering it had no heater and range could drop to around 15 miles in winter, we’re not surprised that only 120 units were made. Half of these were bought by the Electricity Board!


Want to see the Enfield 8000 in action?

Feast your eyes on the Enfield 8000 below in a TV news bulletin about electric cars from 1974.


Sinclair C5 – 1985

Sinclair C5
  • Price at the time: £399 (minus “accessories”)
  • Estimated range: 20 miles
  • Top speed: 15mph
  • Acceleration: Unknown

Before you say it: this isn’t a children’s tricycle.

It’s 1985 and this beauty is the creation of Sir Clive Sinclair, a renowned British inventor who had a fascination with electric cars.

One thing we should point out is that, strictly speaking, this is more of a vehicle than it is a car. However, it’s roadworthy, has a whacky design and created quite a storm when it was released, so we can’t help but include it in our list.

Limited range, an even more limited top speed and an open cockpit meant it was always going to struggle against real cars. Sinclair’s C5 was even offered with “accessories” that included waterproofs as it was widely accepted that the UK hardly offered the wind-in-your-hair driving experience.

Other essentials were also sold separately to keep the cost below £400, including indicators, mirrors, a horn, mud flaps and a high-vis mast that helped make the C5 more visible in traffic.

We quite like the laid back recumbent position of the seat. With a 28 litre rear luggage compartment at the back, it could make for a great little runaround for picking up your weekly top-up shop!


Renault Zoom (concept) – 1992

Renault Zoom 1992
  • Price at the time: N/A
  • Estimated range: 160 miles
  • Top speed: 75mph (limited)
  • Acceleration: Unknown

The Renault Zoom, despite not making it to production, has to make it into this list.

It’s a remarkable looking thing that even 30 years on resembles something you could envisage zooming (pardon the pun) round a futuristic city. And if its looks haven’t captured your attention, then its features certainly will.

Even though it was smaller than most city cars today, it could shrink by two feet in order to fit into tight spaces. The car also had two ‘scissor doors’ that made it easier to get in and out of when there’s not much room.

Most impressive of all was its performance. According to Renault it had a claimed range of 160 miles between charges using nickel cadmium batteries and a top speed of 75mph. That’s more than modern electric city cars like the Volkswagen e-Up! We’re not sure how much of this is true, of course, because the car never made it to the roads to be tested. However, it certainly caught our attention.


Check out the Renault Zoom concept car below! Would you drive one?


GM (General Motors) EV1 – 1996

  • Price at the time: $399 – $549 a month
  • Estimated range: 105 miles (nickel metal hydride battery) and 55 miles (lead-acid battery)
  • Top speed: 80mph (limited)
  • Acceleration: 0-60mph in < 9.0 seconds

American automaker General Motors made a bold statement with its EV1 back in 1996.

It was the first mass-produced electric car by a major manufacturer in modern times that had been designed with a bespoke EV platform.

All this is very impressive and all, but we’re very skeptical about the lack of wheel arch at the back of the car. Because there’s one at the front, we can’t help but think that it looks like someone who decides to wear one trouser leg up and the other down while awkwardly passing it off as ‘fashion’.

Now back to the story of the car.

During the three years that the EV1’s production ran it was available on a lease-only agreement. Fewer than 700 were leased during the time, despite the car being well received and GM themselves setting capacity at 4,000 per year.

In the end it was GM who would pull the plug on its EV1 programme after deciding pure electric cars weren’t profitable. By 2004 the company had taken back all of the EV1s and they were subsequently crushed.


Are you interested in making the switch to electric? We compare lease deals on a wide range of brand-new electric cars from the UK’s top leasing providers. Moneyshake finds you the best deal for your perfect EV.


Compare electric car lease deals


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