Ford Comuta

This car was all-electric commuter car was developed in 1967, the same year that The Jimi Hendrix Experience exploded onto the scene with Are You Experienced? It makes me imagine an alternate reality where the world's major cities had scores of Ford electric cars around through the '60s and '70s…with BBC Radio 1 and Top of the Pops hits heard with more clarity, thanks to the near-silent electric powertrain.

Maybe Hendrix would have fancied one…though there's not much room for a guitar case…or more than one (probably female) passenger. As it sits, Ford says it designed the Comuta to hold two adults and two children (and not much else!) in 1/2 the space of a Cortina.

To do this, it started with packaging an array of lead-acid batteries under the floor, like so many electric cars that followed. This gives the most interior space, best handling, and allows for external dimensions to be quite tidy—hell, the Comuta's 'hood' is shorter than a Subway foot-long.

The other day, I re-watched the movie Revenge of the Electric Car and felt that even though General Motors totally missed its shot at revolutionizing the industry with the EV-1, every automaker has at least a few EV skeletons in its closet. Ford's is named Comuta.

Ford's idea with the Comuta was to design a compact and city-friendly runabout that could be used for short shopping trips to city centres around Europe, where space is much more of a concern than it is in the U.S. Let's not forget that by the time Europeans 'found' a whole New World across the ocean, its cities were very well established—so when cars came around, it's not as if they were about to start demolishing cathedrals and homes for parking towers and expressways.

By the time nearly every family had a car or two in the '60s, it was clear that congestion was going to be a major problem in the future. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's not clear if electric microcars would have helped the problem—but I find it fascinating that Ford stopped development only after building six drivable prototypes. 

Usually, companies need just one prototype in order to make a decision. Six suggests this idea was taken more seriously than we'll ever know. It even allowed film crews to drive the car—and one such preserved newsreel is below. Watch it.

Like Hendrix, the car owed its existence and success to both sides of the pond. Here, the American industrial powerhouse supported its UK operations with the design and construction of Comuta prototypes, but it was first and foremost a European project.

Powered by four 12-volt, 85-amp lead-acid batteries, it could hit 60 km/h (37 mph)…with a city driving range range of just 60 kilometres (37 miles). Even today, its specs would delight many inner city dwellers—with trips on the highway likely verboten. Compared to a car, yes, it would be left behind at the lights by a Citroën 2CV or Honda Z360 and confined to city streets.

Compared to a scooter, however, I bet many riders would willingly trade two wheels for four—though that notion hasn't exactly helped sell millions of Renault Twizys, has it?

Timing is everything, though. Maybe electric cars would be ubiquitous today had Ford decided to take a leap—just as music was changed forever when the BBC's Linda Keith took a chance on a 24-year-old kid from Seattle, Washington named Johnny Allen Hendrix.