I’m currently in the basement of the Indianapolis Art Museum, making preparations for my project coming in August. Upstairs in the museum, there’s a fantastic exhibit of concept cars and one-offs called Dream Cars which we’ll cover in detail soon — but right now I want to talk about just one: the Electric Egg.
The Electric Egg is better known by its French name, L’Oeuf Electrique, and compared to the grand, bold, and wildly optimistic concept cars in the rest of the show, seems decidedly tiny, humble and even a little ramshackle. Which, really, it is, and that’s very likely why I’m so taken by it.
L’Oeuf Electrique was built by Paul Arzens in 1942 — you students of history will probably note that this was a pretty merde-tacular time to be in France if you weren’t a Nazi, since France was occupied up until 1944. Arzens was a gifted industrial designer, designing railroad vehicles and some automobiles as well.
During the war and occupation, gasoline was in extremely short supply for civilian use, so Arzens began experimenting with electric cars. His first one, called the Baleine (Whale) was, as its name suggests, pretty huge, with 1100 lbs of batteries (not counting the rest of the car) being pushed by a 10HP motor. Not exactly a great power/weight ratio.
Arzens soon realized that bigger wasn’t necessarily better here, so when he decided to make his own daily-use electric car, he went the opposite way and created the tiny, Dr.Seussian Electric Egg.
I’d seen pictures of this little vehicle before, but never got the chance to examine it in person until yesterday in the Indianapolis Art Museum. It’s an absolutely fascinating machine, and more incredible because it’s completely unrestored — this is how it was, with all its repairs and wear — when Arzens was using it to scoot around all those fucking Nazis in Paris.
It retains an incredible hand-made look, but for as small and simple as it is, it doesn’t feel crude. It feels like some artisan’s work, and you see evidence of his own hands all over the hand-hammered aluminum body. The overall design I think also must have been an inspiration a few years later when Iso was designing the Isetta, one of the most succesful bubble cars, and can even be felt today in the design of vehicles like the Elf.
The design is quite clever — essentially, one main oval, with a smaller ovoid bustle at the rear housing the electric drive system, and small ovoid pods for the wheels. The main glass area — windshield and those great clear doors — is all formed plexiglass, which was quite a tricky thing to make back in that era. One of my favorite parts of the car is the repairs made to the cracked portion of the right clear bubble-door, which has been painstakingly reconstructed from the shattered pieces, the pieces held in place, puzzle-like, with small metal screws and tabs.
I’ve heard that the car weighed only 75 lbs, which I have trouble believing — even if it’s twice that, that’s still incredibly light. It’s almost entirely aluminum, even the interior and controls, giving it a gleaming monochrome look that lends it an air of forgotten futurism.
There’s something about this little whimsical egg that’s so wonderfully defiant. There’s no way the Nazi occupiers wanted regular French citizens to have a lot of easy mobility, and when Paul Arzens dared to build his little electric city car, saturated with a whimsical, optimistic French charm and style, I’m pretty sure it had to piss of some of those Nazis when they saw it buzzing around town.
This car is normally in France, so any chance to see it in person in the US I think is worthwhile — if you’re anywhere nearby Indianapolis, I really suggest coming and paying your respects to that little egg.