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1959 Charles Townabout Concept Car


Fate of the 1959 Charles Townabout Concept Car
Journalist Joe Wherry (left) inspects Townabout technology on an early prototype. He's getting points from a Stinson official and his young helper.
Journalist Joe Wherry (left) inspects Townabout technology on an early prototype. He's getting points from a Stinson official and his young helper.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The fate of the 1959 Charles Townabout concept car rested primarily in how much Stinson needed to sell the car for in order to make a profit.

By mid-summer 1959, Stinson had set retail price at $2,895 FOB San Diego, but that was way too much for what otherwise looked like an ordinary economy car with just two seats. After all, Studebaker was selling new six-passenger six-cylinder Larks at $1,000 less, and a 1959 Rambler American DeLuxe cost as little as $1,821.

So after about a dozen prototypes and about 200 production models, it was goodbye to this Charlie. Intended volume was much higher than this, but Stinson backed out due to limited potential sales and a necessarily steep retail price. Stinson engineers went back to working on aircraft full-time.

The Townabout wasn't the only electric concept car at the time. Also nearing completion in 1959 was the Pioneer, a fiberglass-bodied three-seat electric backed by the Nic-L-Silver Battery Company in Santa Ana, California.

Another 1959 electric-car concept was the Pioneer, here shown in wagon form. It used twin 8-horsepower motors driving the rear wheels.
Another 1959 electric-car concept was the Pioneer, here shown in wagon form. It used twin 8-horsepower motors driving the rear wheels.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Engineering, mainly by Frank Kurtis of race-car fame, featured a unique torsion-bar suspension and twin 8-horsepower motors driving the rear wheels by chain. Sales were imminent by autumn 1959, when a Pioneer wagon was announced along with a detachable hardtop option for the roadster, which was pegged at about $2,000 retail.

Like the Townabout, though, Pioneer was doomed by likely sales volume that was just too small to offset huge production start-up costs.

In retrospect, the 1959 Charles Townabout concept car was just a bit of California dreaming for which there was obvious need but no great public demand as yet -- nor, indeed, the technology to solve inherent problems that might have stimulated demand given time and proper promotion.

The Golden State itself tried to summon the future by mandating electrics, even though technology in the 1990s still couldn't resolve some of the deficits that plagued the Townabout and its ilk in the 1950s.

A detachable hardtop option was available for the Pioneer roadster. Neither the Townabout nor the Pioneer made it to volume production.
A detachable hardtop option was available for the Pioneer roadster. Neither the Townabout nor the Pioneer made it to volume production.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda have in many ways fulfilled the promise of the Charles Townabout with much success, and others seem to be rapidly following in their footsteps.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: