Electric vehicles are not new – it is just now, or at least the past ten-plus years – that they have become a thing. Here is a nostalgia trip for those a bit older, and a weird but interesting fact for the younger generations. In the old days, they used to deliver your milk to your door early in the morning – 4 – 5h o’clock. They did this using a milk float, a small electric trolley thing with a driver/delivery guy. You put your glass milk bottles next to the front door, with cash or plastic tokens them for what you wanted. The guy on the float would replace your empty bottles with fresh milk (and/or cream) according to the tokens you left with the empties. The reason the float was electric had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with not waking up the milk company’s customers.
Fast forward several decades and electric vehicles are here, because of the environment and because they are cheaper to run, generally quicker than any petrol car, with ease-of-use, charging times and range, and purchase price rapidly becoming more attractive.
We all know the Nissan LEAF and how it set the pace as the first affordable, practical EV more than a decade ago. But if the lead-acid battery milk float was already delivering the moo juice in the 1930s, when did Nissan make it first EV and what was the journey before the LEAF?
The Prince Motor Company merged with Nissan in 1966, so technically the 1947 Tama Electric is part of the Nissan EV story. After the war ended in 1945, the Japanese economy was devastated. There were no stocks of oil or petrol, so ICE cars were not practical. There was, strangely enough, surplus electricity generation capacity. Very few factories and almost no household appliances meant there was more juice on tap than required.
And thus the Tama Electric was born. A four-seater, four-wheeled box sitting on an enormous lead-acid battery. The Tama was not designed to compete with ICE cars, nor did it have the technology to do so. Except in a place where there was no petrol, where it could take you and three passengers 65km at 35km/h. Faster than a horse or human, with an enclosed cabin and padded seats. Luxury. And then Japan’s economy exploded and soon they were making remarkably ugly, but very reliable and affordable ICE econoboxes. Until 1969 when the Z240 suddenly appeared and changed everything for Nissan and the Japanese motor industry generally.
Fast forward about 45 years to 1996 and the appearance of the strangely named Prairie Joy (the Z240 was called the Fairlady in Japan), the world’s first EV with cylindrical lithium-ion batteries. It could take you 200km at a top speed of 120km/h, and thirty models were made, mainly for corporate and fleet customers in Japan.
Then in 2000, Nissan made the very modern-looking Hypermini, with a blistering 100km/h top speed and 115km range. In 2007 we got the Pivo 2, the only time Nissan went full weird with an EV. It had a bubble cabin and wheels on stalks. The cabin, seating three, could rotate so you can simply drive back the way you came. It was also the first Nissan with steering wheel controls. And instead of parallel parking, you could swivel the wheels 90-degrees and drive sideways into the parking spot. The car also had ways of keeping the driver cheerful, but I would rather not discuss that here.
So past the Nissan LEAF, still going strong, past several other iterations of the modern EV, to the stunning Nissan Ariya, a really special-looking electric SUV that helped define this new car segment.
What next? Stick with us as we walk this journey.