Zagato Zele

I was in a heated discussion yesterday with a friend about new cars, and my take was that, ideally, the way to go would be to just drive the least expensive vehicle possible—beige Corolla, Geo Metro, $500 Volvo, smart fortwo on lease, etc.—thereby cutting down payment costs, depreciation losses, paying insurance on a new car, etc. 

Before you think I'm being silly, consider what that new car will cost you over five to 10 years—and (mentally) put that cash toward a nice classic car. The data backs this up, with a report earlier this year saying that in the U.S., the only city with residents earning the median income that can afford the average price of a new vehicle (a hair over $32,000) are residents of Washington, D.C.

Save up and put $30k toward a classic, though: you've got a way to work and a nice old car for the weekend. Last night, however, I think I came up with a solution that solves every problem: what if your inexpensive, efficient commuter car was also a brand-name classic car?

You've already seen the photo of the DayGlo orange Zagato Zele up top, and upon its first showing in 1972, enthusiasts were just as confused as you probably are now. However improbable you may think the Zele is, consider that it was shown as the fuel shortage alarm bells were ringing—and entered production in 1974, just as the world was locked in a fuel crisis.

Just as well, then, the rear-drive Zele accelerates on a scale reserved for geopolitics—its top speed of (at most) 80 km/h (50 mph) was reached quite slowly, even though the driving enthusiast-minded Italians had included four forward speeds and a two-step accelerator pedal in a bid to help acceleration.

Sold in three trims, 1000, 1500, and 2000, the Zele was—you guessed it—all electric and the top-trim Zele 2000 could have up to eight car batteries packed under the passenger compartment. Again, being an Italian electric microcar, they were nice enough to include a boost switch that'd (according to Wikipedia) apparently weaken the motor's magnetic fields in the field coils to produce less torque but a greater top speed. A little too Star Trek, perhaps?

“I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain!”

Now that I'm sure you're completely sold on the Zele, let me say it was imported and sold in the U.S. as the Elcar—and a quick search online shows several available in various locations (the closest Elcar to me is in Montreal. A little pricey, but hey, it's a Zagato!)

Range! Where would I be without mentioning range, a metric so hilariously useless to the electric car discussion it boggles my mind people care about it. (Seriously, when's the last time you read about a gasoline car's "range" in comparison to its competitors? Diesel cars, sure, but then again it's not every day reviewers go out of their way to deliberately run out of fuel to prove that conventionally-fuelled vehicles have a range that—shockingly—also depends on driving conditions.)

I ran out (of electricity, gas, diesel, whatever.) It's the car's fault. Puh-lease—unless your car has a thyroid problem.

Its range is about 80 km (50 miles), which would suit my commute of about 13 km each way just fine. I wouldn't be able to get to, y'know, many places besides work—but why on earth would I want to drive this thing more than I'd have to?

Truth be told, I really like the Zele. It looks like a little escape capsule that'd be mounted underneath a Star Destroyer or something. I'd also commute in one—it's got to be better than the Peel P50 I drove a few years ago, right?

Well…maybe not.

The Elcar has yet another mark against it: Its suspension is too flimsy to cope with even the low level of performance of which the vehicle is capable. During hard braking tests from 30 mph, the front suspension collapsed, putting an empathetic end to our texting of the Elcar
— Consumer Reports, October 1975