Home » Chrysler Made A Rare Electric Minivan In The 1990s, And You Can Own One Of Them Today

Chrysler Made A Rare Electric Minivan In The 1990s, And You Can Own One Of Them Today

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In the 1990s, a number of manufacturers looked to the future as they planted electric powertrains into cars. The General Motors EV1 is perhaps the most famous ’90s EV, but it was far from alone. Ford electrified the Ranger pickup in the 1990s, and Chrysler turned the Dodge Caravan into an EV called the TEVan. One of these rare TEVans has come up for sale, and it looks like an interesting project for someone wanting to tinker with a cheap EV.

If you look back through the history of electric vehicles, you could divide electric evolution up into eras. In fact, that’s exactly what our Jason Torchinsky did, dividing EVs up into three eras that span nearly two centuries and are sorta based on the level of technology for the day. Check out this sweet graphic:

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Jason Torchinsky

The Dodge TEVan would fall into the Crap Era, which means that things are going to be sorta awful, but still pretty neat.

According to a 1991 issue of Popular Science, a number of the EV efforts of the 1990s trace their roots to air pollution in California. As the magazine wrote at the time, there were a number of ideas to reduce air pollution in the Los Angeles basin. There were proposals for everything from all-EV fleets to pollution-free zones. Lawmakers figured it would take more than just new rules to kickstart EV development. In 1988, Los Angeles city councilman Marvin Braude proposed the L.A. Electric Car Initiative, which called for Los Angeles to sponsor a competition where the winning company would score a contract to make 5,000 passenger EVs and 5,000 EV trucks for the city. A year later, the initiative was approved and 200 proposals were sent out to prospective companies. Los Angeles received back 19 responses, which were whittled down to just three low-volume manufacturers.

That same year, the California Air Resources Board pushed out a more ambitious program. The Zero-Emission Vehicle Program originally required two percent of a large auto manufacturer’s total California sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 1998, with the percentage rising to five percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

Suddenly, America’s automakers needed to have viable EVs before the end of the decade.

Chrysler Experiments With Electric Vans

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In 1991, Chrysler teamed up with General Electric’s Electric Power Research Institute to make an electric minivan. A year later, the duo produced the TEVan concept. According to Chrysler, the “T” referred to the van’s T-115 code name while the “E” stood for electric. The TEVan is based on the second-generation Dodge Caravan and was built on the same Windsor assembly line shared by the gasoline-powered version of the van. Chrysler says it was the first company to introduce an all-electric minivan with the TEVan, and it was sold from 1993 through 1995 in very small numbers.

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Depending on the source, Chrysler either made 56 or 80 of these vans. Half of them reportedly came with 30 Eagle-Picher nickel-iron 6-volt batteries. This 180-volt pack provided juice to an air- and oil-cooled DC motor rated at 35 continuous horsepower with a 70 horsepower peak.

Documentation with the van says that a blower fed air through ducting to help keep the motor cool.

Tevan

The motor drove the van through a two-speed transmission and still featured the equipment that you’d expect in a Chrysler van like power steering and air-conditioning. The estimated range was in the ballpark of 60 to 80 miles and the top speed was about 65 mph, though exact details seem to vary depending on the source.

The other half of the TEVans reportedly came with 30 SAFT nickel-cadmium batteries rated at the same voltage, with a range closer to 50 miles. In either case, the batteries reportedly weighed in at around 1,800 pounds and were topped up from an onboard charger that was able to get the batteries back to full in as little as a few hours. Chrysler expected the batteries to last about 100,000 miles.

According to a 1993 Los Angeles Times article, Chrysler proved what the van could do by taking one on a nine-day, 2,604-mile trek from Detroit to the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Eco Expo. Chrysler reportedly called it record-breaking, beating an electric car that drove 2,500 miles in 158 hours. The automaker made the trip with backup from a crew of 10 who rode in a motorhome and a truck carrying a machine to recharge the van. The video doesn’t seem to want to embed, but check out this film from Fort Worth’s KXAS-TV/NBC detailing the road trip and the van.

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Apparently, the van made it 50 to 70 miles between recharges that lasted up to three hours. It was a feat, but at the time, Chrysler was unsure if the van could pass a CARB test where an EV had to climb a theoretical hill with air-conditioning running.

The van never got sold to the public. Instead, they sold for $120,000 each with Chrysler saying that utility companies were the principal customers. Then, once the utility companies were done with them, some people picked them up second-hand. Amazingly, this isn’t even Chrysler’s only EV van of the 1990s as the TEVan did get a sequel. In 1998, the Dodge and Plymouth Electric Powered Interurban Commuter (EPIC) minivans got third-generation Chrysler minivan bodies and new batteries. These also went to fleet customers.

This TEVan

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This example appears to be in good physical shape, but the electric drive system will need help. The seller says that it drove fine eight years ago when they drove it 100 miles. It suffered from a charger controller malfunction that left it parked. As of today, the charger controller still isn’t working and now it doesn’t have any batteries at all.

Flipping through the pictures, I noticed that there was a discrepancy between the manuals and the equipment. The manual says that the motor produces 35 HP, but the motor itself says 27 HP.

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Some sources state the actual output to be 27 HP. Given the tiny production numbers, it’s unclear how easy it would be to restore this van. However, it might be the kind of project for someone wanting to experiment with building their own EV. Here’s a van that might have some usable parts and you don’t have to worry about disposing of an engine.

If you want to start your own EV adventure, this 1994 Dodge TEVan will set you back $3,000 from a seller in Fall River, Wisconsin.

Hat Tip to CoolMinivan…….Nobody from Opposite-Lock!

(All images to the seller unless otherwise noted.)

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35 Responses

  1. I’m glad the article mentioned its successor, the Dodge Epic.

    If properly maintained, those NiFe batteries could last forever. It’s as close to being a solid state battery as we can get without being a true solid state battery. Jay Leno still has the original set in his 1909 Baker Electric. However, the other TEVans used Saft NiCd batteries, also 180AH. So both variants had a 32.4 kWh pack, weighing around 1,800 lbs!

    The stamp on the motor is what GE rated it at continuous. The official rating from Chrysler is likely based upon how much power it could put out without overheating before the battery is drained. I think that is where the discrepancy rests.

    Considering how terrible this van’s aerodynamics are and how heavy it is, the fact that it could get 50-70 miles range at freeway speeds is impressive. With one-third the aerodynamic drag, it could have doubled the range, on the same batteries. With mass production, the cost could have come down to something reasonable and affordable. Yes, even in the crap era, theoretically it was possible for an EV to be marginally mass market viable, although it would have been more a streamlined wagon or sedan similar in shape to a Tatra T77A, than the Chrysler TEVan we got, in order for that to happen. No one with money had the vision and/or desire to make it happen, but the math works out and doing so was technically feasible.

  2. I wish I could find a picture of the gauge cluster of these (and the Epic). I kinda love the cobbled together nature of these early EVs and that’s where they usually have the coolest changes.

    1. I went to the FB marketplace listing just to check if a pic was there for the same reason.

      The wiki pages for both vans had some links, and I found a couple photos that suggest the gas gauge was flipped to a battery symbol for the TEVan, and the temp gauge maybe applicable to the motor temp?

      But – actually found a informational vid of the Epic that shows close-up of the gauge changes, pretty neat: https://youtu.be/C3suNtJjfsM

  3. I’m giving serious thought to entering the world of serially-produced, street-legal EVs from the second half of the twentieth century because this seems to be yet another way of meeting my ideal standard of “arguably adequate for use as transportation.” I’m inclined, however, to stick with a system that was designed for lead-acid batteries. This would simplify certain matters and, again, falls perfectly in line with “arguably adequate.” Maybe a nice Marathon C-300 or Lectric Leopard…

    1. I’d recommend you find a Jet Electrica or a Jet Courier. Those are still cheap, whenever they do pop up for sale. You can also upgrade to a more modern battery chemistry and get 4x the range you would with lead acid for half the weight. If the original controller burns out, there are golf cart controllers on the market that are a plug and play replacement. They tended to use small forklift motors, the Prestolite MTC4001 series DC being common. I have one in my electric Triumph GT6 conversion.

      1. The many fine products of Jet Industries are certainly in the running for consideration but, as far as batteries go, I consider one-quarter the range at twice the weight to be part of the appeal. Even taking into account the giddy optimism and/or outright lies regarding the ranges originally attributed to most EVs of that era, I could still get to and from work in one.

        1. Going back to ancient lead acid batteries will in all likelihood greatly increase your operating costs. The only lead acid powered conversions that demonstrated an operating cost advantage over using gasoline ICE in the time period had long ranges of 80+ miles and typically saw their batteries discharged to less than 25% on a regular basis. What this did was maximize the overall cycle life of the batteries allowing one to get many tens of thousands of miles and perhaps a decade out of their lead acid pack. When you deep discharge the batteries on a regular basis, you quickly kill the batteries. If you only get a 30-40 mile real world range, and use that range on a regular basis, you’ll be lucky to get 10,000 miles out of that pack, and if it costs $2,000 or more to replace, you’ve completely killed the entire point of the car. Most crap era EVs were expensive to operate because efficiency was not a massive consideration nor was the battery properly sized for the application, which is understandable considering the donor chassis was typically designed for the mass of an ICE configuration and had a set GVWR, leaving limited weight in the budget for batteries.

          If you want to keep the weight and overall crapcan performance, you could go with the same weight in modern battery tech, using a dumb battery that doesn’t require a BMS like the CALB LiFePO4. You’ll have ICE-like range as a result, but the car will still perform as a crap era car should, very slowly. The advantage being, the operating cost will be low enough to live with on a daily basis, easily besting most comparably performing ICE powered cars and with a pack life well into the 6-figures if you have a proper charger and charging algorithm. And a proper charger for the CALB batteries will run you as little as $800 new if you don’t mind long charge times, but there are much faster ones if you’re willing to spend accordingly.

  4. The missing 1800# of batteries would explain why it’s sitting so high on the springs. And that’s some genuine 90s paint failure.
    I would love to retrofit as many Tesla or LEAF battery modules as I could cram into this and have a properly cruddy EV replacement for my pickup. Don’t want to think what the underbody would look like after 32 years in the Midwest, though.

      1. You’ll need a 50 kWh pack for that sort of range in this heavy, unaerodynamic brick of a vehicle. The good news is that the battery pack to allow for this would only weigh around 500 lbs, so the vehicle would lose significant weight vs stock.

    1. If you totaled one of the TEVans with the SAFT NiCd packs, it is quite possible that the immediate area would have become a Superfund site. Cadmium is some nasty stuff… Back in the day, NiCd was one of the few available alternatives to lead acid, and offered roughly double the specific capacity.

      It’s a shame that the Eagle Pitcher NiFe batteries were never made available to the hobbyist market. They would have made an economical alternative to lead acid on a per mile operating cost basis, and allowed double the range, without presenting all of the environmental hazards posed by the NiCd chemistry, or the explosion/fire risks posed by most other chemistries. Edison was the original pioneer of the NiFe battery, and there is suspicion that the early prototypes were sabotaged. By the time Edison ironed most of the bugs out, EVs had already been supplanted by ICE.

  5. So my mother’s Plymouth Sundance had those same wheels. The center cap and cover were two parts. One goes in the middle and the other part would cover it. To get the center part to stay in place, you had to undo two lugnuts, then insert the center cap, tighten the lugnuts, then you could attach the cover and not worry about it flying off. So many got lost because of that. I don’t know why I remembered this.

  6. I knew these had *existed* but I am beyond overjoyed to see that one has survived and is actually for sale.

    My guess is some homebuilt EV fanatic will buy it and Frankenstein the hell out of it, but honestly it’s so rare it deserves a full restoration.

    1. Unlike modern EVs with everything sealed off via proprietary software, this TEVan is as an EV should and easily could be: composed of dumb components that are plug and play. The battery, charger and controller can each be replaced with off-the-shelf parts manufactured for the hobbyist EV conversion market with minimal hassle or fuss. Even golf cart components can be used, in a pinch. The same can also be said for the motor if it burns out, and if you destroy the 2-speed transmission, a dual motor setup could be used in its place with a set of contactors to shift them between series and parallel, allowing a 2-speed transmission without a physical transmission present.

      New EVs could and should be built the same way, but they deliberately are not, turning what should be a product built to last a human lifetime and be easily repairable, into disposable landfill fodder when even minor components fail. I have a friend with a broken down Nissan Leaf that requires a charger and OEM assistance which will cost far more to replace than the vehicle is worth to fix, because of proprietary software present, which neither of us can fix ourselves. We’ve both built custom EVs from scratch and converted cars that functioned just fine using much cheaper/simpler components. Planned obsolescence is a vile grift that needs to be done away with.

  7. David wants to do an EV conversion, this might be a good starting point, and it’s even from Chrysler, so tangentially related to his horde of jeeps!

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