Home » Someone Restored An Electric Car Designed In The 1970s And Its Stone-Age Tech Will Surprise You

Someone Restored An Electric Car Designed In The 1970s And Its Stone-Age Tech Will Surprise You

Citicar Restoration Ts2
ADVERTISEMENT

I’ve only seen CitiCars in pictures, and those photos only showed the exterior and cockpit, not the inner workings. I never thought I’d get the chance to what makes a CitiCar tick (or click and hum, to be more accurate), but the 1976 CitiCar restoration you’re about to enjoy from DIYauto.com contributor Ron Green delivers all the deep-dive goods I long for.

Steve I started DIYauto.com to collect, organize, and preserve important DIY automobile project stories and build threads. I’m grateful to Ron Green for sharing his story with DIYauto so I can share it with you today. If you’ve written DIY or build threads, I encourage you to share them with DIYauto. Your project will be in good company! And now, back to the build …

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

As Jason Torchinsky explains in this video, the CitiCar comes from what Jason lovingly calls the Crap Era of the electric car. This era started in 1920 and stretched all the way to 1995, the beginning of what Jason dubs the “Tesla era.” Incredibly, the CitiCar was the best-selling American electric car until Tesla came along. Sure it may not measure up to electric cars today in terms of comfort, performance, range, or anything else really – but look how happy that thing looks! With its robin’s-egg blue paint and those whitewall tires, you can’t not smile looking at it. 

Citicar

Here’s Ron with more details about the Citicar: 

ADVERTISEMENT

CitiCar manufacturer Sebring Vanguard was formed in 1974 due in part to the mid 70’s fuel crisis. A factory was set up in Florida and approximately 2500 vehicles were built from 1974 to 1976. The selling price in 1975 was about $4500. This was considerably more than the average gas powered car at that time.

In 1977 the company went bankrupt and was sold piecemeal at auction. The principal buyer at the auction was a mobile home manufacturer from New Jersey named Frank Flowers. Frank purchased most of the company in-tact, but not the trade names “Sebring Vanguard” or “Citicar”. In 1978 he proceeded to build a new version of the car using both new and existing parts from the Citicar, as well as incorporating a number of electrical improvements. The overall shape of the new car looked very much like the Citicar and many of the parts are interchangeable. Since Frank did not have the copyright for the original name he called the new car the “Comuta-Car”. As luck would have it in 1978 America would have the second major oil shortage of the decade, which resulted in an immediate desire to have more efficient cars. The Comuta-Car was an instant success and sold over 4,000 vehicles. The average price for the Comuta-Car was $6,500, rather expensive. 

By 1980, several things had changed and people were no longer as interested in fuel economy. Perhaps more importantly, the National Transportation Safety Board had increased the requirements for vehicle certification. Even though the Comuta-Car would have probably passed the higher standards that all cars in America must pass, the cost for testing and certifying the vehicle line, plus the cost of insuring the manufacturer (from $150,000 to $300,000), proved to be the final death blow. 

A speed of 38 MPH is achievable with a range of 30 to 45 miles depending on the terrain (hills, etc), battery condition and the number of stop and go’s. There is an on board charger to replenish the eight 6 volt batteries that are located under the seat. The CitiCar has large relays to configure three different voltages and therefore three different speeds for the vehicle. The motor is mounted directly to the differential and there is no transmission. The low speed is about 18 volts, middle speed is 24 volts and high speed is 48 volts. The vehicle is made of ABS plastic, has an aluminum frame with roll cage, weighs a total of 1,250 pounds (less passengers) and seats 2 adults comfortably.

You can see it looks pretty rough in the pre-restoration photos. The front wheel is rusted and the rear suspension is made out of angle iron. It looks like an Atari era video game car that’s exploded. Some people may think a “crap era” electric car doesn’t deserve this much love, but I find it heartwarming. Ron’s preserving a piece of history here. 

Citcar

Ron sanded down the fiberglass body before laying down paint. The materials costs were probably a quarter what it would be to paint a conventionally-sized car. Here Ron talks about the wedge-shaped body:

The entire body including the top is made out of a material called “Cycolac,” which is an extremely thin type of plastic (not fiberglass). It will crack simply by looking at the CitiCar the wrong way. They have also been known to crack at the windshield pillars if loading onto a trailer. 

Since the vehicle is riveted together stress cracks tend to show up. I countered this by drilling the rivet holes a whisker larger to allow for a tiny amount of play and expansion (not loose though). Riveting this vehicle together was like building an experimental airplane. Even the tail light chrome housing, rocker moldings, etc. were riveted. I had to buy a pneumatic rivet gun as my right hand was starting to look like Hulk Hogans. I beefed up the areas prone to cracking with fiberglass underneath prior to painting.

Citicar

Citicar

ADVERTISEMENT

Citicar
Here, Ron starts laying out the axle and rear leaf spring suspension. You can see the electric motor on the left which will mount directly to the axle. 

Citcar

Citicar

An electric car from the 70s is going to have some wiring issues to go through. As you’d expect, it’s looking a little crusty behind the dashboard. It’s probably not too complex, but I hate wiring – especially old wiring. Whatever insulation that isn’t turning into dust has been a late night snack for the local rodent population. As Ron put it:

One wire hook up , 2 wire screw up, 3 wire *%#@ up, 4 wire drag up

Citicar
The “after” photo looks pretty nice. Is that real wood? Talk about luxury! Lucid, eat your heart out.

CitiCar

ADVERTISEMENT

Eight lead-acid batteries power the little doorstop. Hopefully Ron didn’t need to use a chainsaw to pull out the old batteries à la Jason

Fresh juice. Eight 6 volt batteries for 12 / 24 / 48 volt speeds at 38 MPH max. A neck wrenching 3.5 HP. Also a picture of the main forward /reverse contactor, speed contactor and solenoid, or as the wife says “that clicky thing.”

CitCar

Speaking of mechanicals, look at this thing on its little jack stands. Those tail lights are so shiny and it looks nice and cheerful in that light blue color. The little CitiCar is coming along pretty good!

CitiCar

This is the electro-mechanical speed controller. The CitiCar is solidly in the analog electrical era, where mechanical parts played an important role in keeping the electrons flowing. I’m sure my electric nose hair trimmer has more electronic complexity than the entire CitiCar. Nowadays all this business would be worked out on tiny chips operating on the quantum scale. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Ron discusses the speed controller and a planned upgrade:

I do have a new 650 amp Alltrax controller along with a variable speed pot for the accelerator pedal. This will eliminate the troublesome relays, reduce controller heat, eliminate blown fuses, along with making for smooth driving ability. The jerking between the 3 existing speed switches (18/24/48 volt) connected to the accelerator pedal will be eliminated. The existing forward / reverse contactor, speed contactor and solenoid will reused. 

These Alltrax controllers are rather expensive, almost the same cost as they were back in the day they were a new factory release for these vehicles. I want to get this thing up and running again, do some tweaking and troubleshooting (always have something amiss), then install the new controller. My wife plans on taking this car when finished and the Altrax will make it much easier for her to drive. She never did like the or jerking action or sound of the “clicky thing” when we drove it.

That’s pretty wild! These things didn’t even use potentiometers, which would have allowed voltage (and thus, speed and power) to be ramped up and down smoothly (think of turning a volume knob or dimmer switch). Instead of controlling an infinitely variable voltage output with your right foot and having speed and power increase in proportion to pedal movement, the Citicar offered three acceleration settings. Imagine climbing into your current daily and adjusting your speed by selecting 30%, 50% or 100% throttle. This thing will be much smoother after the fully-proportional-throttle upgrade.

CitiCar

Above, you can see the restored controller wired up, along with its snazzy black astroturf carpet.

CitiCar

ADVERTISEMENT

The big silver box under the dash is the battery charger. You can also see the accelerator pedal which is attached to the three speed switches. There’s a little switch hiding under the dash that turns the car into a 60’s James Bond style submarine, or at least I hope so.

CitiCar

Pictures of the new vinyl roof, buffed out original rear window, and new custom-made front windshield. Was lucky to find the correct and exact window mounting rubber. This pictures also shows the re-popped factory decals. They are made or reflective material so the flash bounced off the decal, unfortunately.

It wouldn’t be the 70’s without a Landau roof, and this Citicar has one. Also where did Ron find a correct front window gasket? Is there such a demand for Citicar window seals that companies are still pumping them out? Can I buy some on Rock Auto? (I just checked. I can’t.)

Ron reveals the car has 9000 miles and was used as a security vehicle at Bucknell College. I can’t imagine security looking intimidating while driving around in a cheese wedge. I wonder if it went on any chases? I’m sure it could keep up with someone on a bike, or drunkenly stumbling to the dorms. I’d probably fall down laughing before I could get away, especially if it had one of those huge 70’s bucket-style cop lights on top. Of course, security guards have been driving small electric cars for a while. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Ron explains a bit more about the electrical system here:

The tall contactor is forward / reverse (up reverse & down forward). Factory originally had them operating the other way but found there was less wear going forward if coil pulled down. The other contactor in called the speed controller (SP-1). The 8 batteries are wired in parallel and in series and divided into two packs of four, providing 24 volts in each pack. The car uses 24 volts from each pack in parallel for the first two speeds and 48 volts in series for the top speed. The speeds are changed by changing the voltage through the use of an accelerator’s three micro switches. 

As the accelerator is depressed, current will flow from the two packs of batteries wired in parallel which produce 24 volts. In the first speed the current passes through a nichrome ribbon resister (under the car in rear) which cuts the amperage load and permits a fairly smooth take off. The first position has a top speed of 11 mph. Depressing the accelerator further will activate a solenoid in the contactor box which bypasses the resistor and increases the speed 23 mph. The car remains in a parallel circuit mode using 24 volts from each pack of batteries. The third speed changes the current from 24 volts in a parallel circuit to 48 volts in a series circuit. To reverse the car a toggle switch on the dash is used to change the current flow to the opposite direction.

No range between speeds and it is jerky at best, even though the owners manual says you will become an expert at controlling these miro switches. 

At the end of production they came out with a different style of controller that eliminated these switches and provided for a variable type speed control. I have this set up but requires a total rewire of everything that controls the motor. I will wait to work the bugs out of everything than tear this portion apart and redo. This will drive the wife nuts as she is ready to drive this thing.

CitiCar

Ron finished up the interior nicely with roll bar padding a custom-made seat bottom.

CitiCar

Here’s the completed dashboard – things so much simpler when you didn’t have all the annoying accouterments of modern life like giant screens and climate vents. And check out that 50 mph speedometer. Even that was optimistic in a car like this.

ADVERTISEMENT

Citicar

New exterior trim and shiny hubcaps with custom decals finish off the Citicar. That silver thing is the charge port, which I imagine is a household plug. From this angle the front looks kind of like some 70’s Giugiaro wedge design – Adrian, don’t kill me. [Why would I kill you when I can make you suffer? – AC]

CiticarAnd here’s the little wedge’s first venture into the world at a car show, where it won first place in the Junior category! Even though it’s awkward looking and came from the “Crap Era,” the Citicar is cool and draws a crowd wherever it goes. 

CitiCar

I love build threads like this, where a car you’ve only heard about gets restored before your eyes (and there’s lots more great stuff from Ron’s project that I couldn’t fit here, take a look!). With the electric car revolution underway, it’s super interesting to see how small companies attempted to fill the need for economical transportation using electric power with the limited resources that were available over 40 years ago. The Citicar is an important piece of automotive history, and seeing this one restored is a genuine treat. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
64 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
beachbumberry
beachbumberry
3 months ago

Holy coy DIYauto! I have a diy squeaky leaf fix that got posted on there back when they first started and it’s still up! Cool to see you on here Steve!

Last edited 3 months ago by beachbumberry
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
3 months ago

Nice restoration. Though I would think it would be worth looking at replacing the lead acid batteries with Lithium-Iron batteries that weigh less and have more capacity. You can get once that are designed to replace 12V lead acid batteries.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
3 months ago

Would be extremely hard with the mechanical relays switching between voltages to do lithium. A 52V setup with some beefy DC-DC converters would be the way to go, but really that would be fixed with the controller upgrade.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
2 months ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

Note that there are some companies now making 12V Lithium batteries that are specifically designed to replace the conventional 12V lead acid batteries in ICE vehicles. Porsche uses them as well as Tesla.

Using that type of Lithium battery should be a straightforward drop-in… with the differences mainly being, more capacity, far less weight and they’ll take up less space (so there would have to be spacers installed to keep them from moving around).

R Hum
R Hum
3 months ago

When I was a teenager, there was a yellow one of these running around the neighborhood. I distinctly remember sitting at a light in my mom’s 74 Coupe Deville and watching this thing pull out of the side street in front of me. Opposite ends of the size spectrum!

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
3 months ago
Reply to  R Hum

Cheddar yellow would be the PERFECT colour for these cars.

Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago
Reply to  R Hum

You didn’t happen to live near Louisville, CO? That’s where the yellow one I saw as a kid was found.

Christo Arvanitis
Christo Arvanitis
3 months ago

I worked at a hotel in high school in the 70s. There was a CitiCar on display in the lobby for months, maybe a year. It was orange and I used to sit in it all the time. I was always amazed that it was road legal, but it was.

TDI in PNW
TDI in PNW
3 months ago

I worked college security a bit. You’re mostly there to open doors, not to chase down people/cars in your golf cart. It would work great for that and the CityCar looks about as exciting to drive as a golf cart, but I actually like driving golf carts. They’re like large, dangerous toys.

Bruce H
Bruce H
3 months ago

Back when I was a quick printer, we had a customer that would come in every year or so to reprint the Citicar/Commuticar handbook 25 copies at a time. So there seems to be a small but active fanbase, when you consider how few were built. I’ve seen one at the St. Louis Easter Concours D’elegance car show from time to time

64
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x