If you were looking to buy a car in 1959, you may have been seduced by the svelte looks of the VW Karmann-Ghia. Many were. But let's say you felt that the Ghia's nightmarish 36 HP was just way, way too much power for you. What could you do? Easy: get your hands on an electric Charles Town-About.
Only about 200 Charles Town-Abouts were actually made, but it's still an interesting very early attempt to re-birth the idea of the electric car, after their heyday at the turn of the 20th century. It's also the first electric car, I believe, to be built from a VW platform (which is still going on today) and might just be the only car I can think of named after a dentist.
I'm also pretty sure this was the first use of the nickname "Volts-wagen," documented in the February 1959 issue of Popular Science.
Yes, Dr. Charles Graves was a dentist, and a VP at Stinson Aircraft Tool & Engineering Corporation, and was a capable electronics engineer and physicist. That's a hell of a dentist. Gathering a team from the Stinson Aircraft Tool & Engineering company, he decided to investigate the possibility of making an electric car.
Graves was aware of similar experiments with electric cars, and presumably saw a hole in a market that Stinson could fill.
The car he came up with was pretty interesting. He used a Karmann-Ghia as a place to start, though because the batteries would be so heavy, he wanted to conserve weight. With that in mind, he took a Karmann-Ghia and used it as a mold to create an entire fiberglass body. Just to keep VW's lawyers off his ass, he eliminated the Ghia's trademark front grilles and added some big-ass tail fins.
Inside, the Ghia's rear seat and package shelf were devoured by batteries and related hardware, though the front trunk was retained. No radio was offered because, you know, all those sweet jamz would just kill your usable range. So bring a harmonica.
It appears that he remade the VW chassis into an aluminum space-frame conforming roughly to the shape of the original, and retained the transaxle. In place of the old air-cooled 4-banger, he used a pair of electric motors, one driving each rear half-axle. The motors were rated at a hilarious 3.2 HP each, though sources say that this was equivalent to an 11 HP gas motor.
Whether it's 6.4HP or 22HP, the Charles Town-About was certainly no speed demon. Or even speed angel. Or speed anything, though they did claim it could hit 58 MPH. The pair of motors connected to a reduction gear assembly and then to the standard VW transaxle, according to period diagrams of the prototype. Later versions built seem to have connected the motors directly to the rear half-shafts.
The range from the four 12-volt auto-type batteries was said to be between 75-80 miles. That's impressive, especially when you realize that's about the same as what you can expect out of a Leaf today. Of course, the Leaf is vastly more powerful and safe, but still, that one number has stayed the same.
The production Charles Town-Abouts ended up retailing for $2895, which back in 1959 was a pretty high number. Ramblers, Studebaker Larks, and even the related VWs could be had for about a grand less, and in the days of cheap gas and gleeful littering, there just wasn't much of a reason to buy a slower car that held less people and couldn't go as far.
The Charles Town-About remains just a little, underpowered footnote in automotive history, but it's an interesting example to look at to see how, despite massive advances in technology and automotive quality, essentially electric cars are facing the exact same issues they were a half century ago. I think things are finally changing, which gives me hope that a new fiberglass, electric Karmann-Ghia with tail fins could one day happen.