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1959 Charles Townabout Concept Car

Image Gallery: Concept Cars The 1959 Charles Townabout concept car put its electric powertrain in a fiberglass body based on the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. It was dubbed the "volts wagon." See more pictures of concept cars.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1959 Charles Townabout concept car was an electric automobile that turned out to be better in concept -- no pun intended -- than in reality. Car buyers weren't quite ready to shell out the manufacturer's asking price for a small car, and technology wasn't advanced enough to work out the Townabout's quirks.

Electric cars have long been big news in air-polluted California, where lawmakers told automakers to sell 40,000 "zero-emissions" vehicles starting in 1998 and some 200,000 by 2003. It was rather draconian edict evidently inspired by the movie Field of Dreams: If you tell them to build electric cars, they will, never mind the cost, technical problems, and other unresolved matters.

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Of course, in addition to being the smog capital of the world, Southern California has never been a hotbed of automotive invention, so it is no real surprise that various vocal locals tried sparking public interest in "volts wagons" long before legislators did.

San Diego, for example, was home to one very practical electric car way back in 1959 -- the Charles Townabout concept car. Just as interesting, the Townabout originated in the region's second best-known industry after filmmaking, the then-booming aircraft field.

Even its name had the quaintly memorable quality of a movieland character: Charles Townabout. Townabout also suggested the car's intended driving role.

The first part of that name honored Dr. Charles Graves, executive vice-president at Stinson Aircraft Tool & Engineering Corporation, the postwar descendant of the famed Stinson Aircraft Company. He assisted Dean Van Noy with engineering chores, but he was not your average corporate bigwig.

Besides being a dentist, Graves had credentials as both physicist and electronics engineer. As such, he took due note of recent predictions that "super" storage batteries were just around the corner, followed soon perhaps by fuel cells that could make electricity by means other than combustion.

Graves was also aware of electric-car experiments going on at places like the Cleveland Vehicle Company in Ohio and, closer to home, the Pioneer concept car at the Nic-L-Silver Battery Company up in Santa Ana, California.

With the right technology and a little luck, he reasoned, Stinson might just beat everyone else to what loomed as a huge and lucrative new market for electric cars that could carry the firm through the ups and downs of its aircraft business. Accordingly, Graves put Dean Van Noy in charge of engineering an amps-powered auto, assisted by Dick Bardsley and Graves himself.

Go to the next page to find out what this team came up with.

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

A dipped bodyside "character line" and trendy tailfins set the Charles Townabout apart from the VW Karmann-Ghia that inspired its body design.
A dipped bodyside "character line" and trendy tailfins set the Charles Townabout apart from the VW Karmann-Ghia that inspired its body design.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1959 Charles Townabout concept car styling resembled a mildly customized Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia coupe -- which essentially it was. The car's high-quality body was molded in fiberglass from a contemporary VW Karmann-Ghia coupe, hence the obvious visual resemblance. There was even a similar torsion-bar suspension.

Still, the Townabout had plenty of differences. Most naturally involved motivation, which comprised four 12-volt car-type batteries linked in series to twin electric motors that were coupled directly to the K-G's rear halfshafts -- one motor to drive each wheel.

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Gears were cut for a 6:1 rpm reduction and beveled for quiet operation. The motors, supplied by Baldor of St. Louis, developed 3.2 shaft horsepower apiece, roughly equal to 11 horses from an internal-combustion engine.

To keep weight down, the VW's steel "backbone" frame was replaced by a special box-section aluminum chassis with a welded-on platform to serve as both floorpan and body carrier. Curb weight ended up at about 1,800 pounds.

The light weight, sprightly gearing, and 22 total horsepower produced acceleration along the lines of popular period economy cars -- like the Karmann-Ghia. Naturally, there was no power lost to a transmission or differential because they weren't needed and were thus omitted.

Also missing was the K-G's token back seat/parcel shelf, the space being used instead to stow the bulky battery pack. The motors and allied components lived farther behind, in what had been the VW's engine bay.

Veteran auto journalist Joe Wherry later wrote that, appearances notwithstanding, the Charles Townabout body was made entirely of fiberglass molded from a stock Karmann-Ghia. However, bulkheads, floorpan, roof, windshield pillars, and the battery deck were formed as a single unit for strength, matching that of the lightweight chassis.

To keep the Charles Townabout from being confused with Wolfsburg's car, Graves and company remodeled the nose a bit and etched in a below-the-belt "character line" that took a saucy dip before kicking up into trendy tailfins.

Townabout prototypes wore a fake grille and rather contrived bumpers. Later versions were spared the former, got small Ford-like round tail-lamps in the fins, and carried simpler bumpers comprising two wraparound chrome tubes connected by a third tube curved into an inverted U.

Read about the pros and cons of the 1959 Charles Townabout concept car in the next section.

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

About 12 Charles Townabout concept car prototypes were built. This one had a three-place bench seat; dual buckets were planned for production.
About 12 Charles Townabout concept car prototypes were built. This one had a three-place bench seat; dual buckets were planned for production.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

As one of the few journalists covering the electric-car scene in the late 1950s, Joe Wherry was able to provide an overview of the 1959 Charles Townabout concept car positives and negatives.

Wherry got to drive a pre-production 1959 Charles Townabout concept car and came away impressed. Stinson's craftsmanship was high quality all the way and was particularly good on the fiberglass work.

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Performance was at least adequate. Though the Townabout was gear-limited to a top speed of only 55 mph, Wherry reported that performance was comparable to that of conventional small import cars of the day and that tests in San Francisco showed hill-climbing ability equal to that of large-displacement piston-engine cars.

Wherry also liked driving electric, finding it easier than a conventional car. All you did was turn a key, select "Forward" or "Reverse" motor operation, and step on the "gas." No shift or clutch to bother with, no noise to speak of -- and no engine braking, though just letting off the "throttle" slowed things down quite fast, as anyone who's driven an electric golf cart can attest.

The Townabout's interior was starkly functional. Inside were a pair of sporty bucket seats and just three instruments: speedometer, the all-important ammeter, and a "battery condition" gauge showing the amount of charge remaining.

Stinson also fitted conventional windshield wipers and turn signals but no radio, which was "not recommended" for the Townabout or most other budding electrics. Perhaps the firm had nightmares of people leaving their radios on too long and hopelessly draining the batteries.

On that point, Wherry reported Stinson's claim that using the headlights continuously decreased driving range less than 10 percent. But then, the Townabout's total range was quoted only at "over 80 miles," and that presumably meant using full power very seldom.

There were other drawbacks too, all long associated with electric cars. The included onboard charger, for example, worked off standard 110-volt current, which was convenient but required a lengthy eight hours to restore depleted batteries. And replacing those cells was a big expense in 1959 at about $260 for the four, yet they were guaranteed for only two years.

See our final section to find out if the 1959 Charles Townabout concept car made it into production.

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

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.

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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:

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