In 1996, General Motors unveiled the first modern electric car: The EV1. Built to prove that GM could satisfy California’s then-new zero-emissions regulations, the EV1 was a quick, efficient, electric two-seater that could be plugged into a standard 110 outlet. By all accounts, the car was well-loved by its owners lessors, but wasn’t profitable enough for GM to make a business case for the development of an EV2. GM halted production after the 1999 model year.
What if they hadn’t stopped there, though? What if, instead of cancelling the EV1, GM had decided to build on everything they’d learned about EVs and doubled down on it, using economies of scale to drive down costs to a level that could have been profitable? What if they had a platform that they already knew they were going to make hundreds of thousands of, every year, standing by at the ready? And, finally, what if that platform had been sturdy enough to carry around an extra thousand pounds of battery without breaking a sweat?
They did, and the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2 is the story of GM dominance that never was.
THIS REALLY COULD HAVE WORKED
Take yourself back to 1999, if you can. At the time, the EV1’s cancellation didn’t seem like particularly big news. After all, gas was still relatively cheap and the dollar still relatively strong, by post-COVID standards, and the need to develop EVs seemed like it could wait a generation or two, still. What was big news in 1999, however, was the launch of the similarly loved GMT800 Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup and its Gen-III “Vortec” line of small-block V8 engines. The trucks were fantastic, and I remember admiring the Chevy’s reptilian grille – which sat in sharp contrast to the carp-mouthed, jellybean ugliness of the ’97 Ford F-150, in my opinion.
Fast forward twenty-few years, and Ford is stealing the headlines with its all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup, coming to market with a genuine mainstream contender that offers real-world benefits to commercial customers while, at the same time, using the pickup’s beefy frame to carry an extra-large battery to deliver a very practical 400-ish miles of empty-bed range. Meanwhile, Chevy’s electric Silverado challenger is nowhere to be seen (at least, not as I type this).
It didn’t have to be this way. Chevy should have beaten Ford to the electric pickup punch by two decades – and they could have, by taking everything they’d learned building the EV1 and applying it to the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2.
In 1996, the “first generation” EV1 carried 1300 lbs. of lead-acid batteries good for 75-80 miles of range – but, even then, battery technology advanced quickly. By 1999, the “second generation” EV1 had dropped 400 pounds of battery by switching to the then-new nickel metal hydride (NiMH) “Ovonic” battery pack that slashed charging time and bumped the car’s EPA-rated range to 142 miles.
Those are decent numbers, even today. Compare those numbers to, say, the 110 mile range of a 2020 Mini Cooper SE or the 100 mile range on the 2022 Mazda MX-30 EV, and you might say that GM had a winner – but efficiency has never sold well in America, and that was probably even more true in 1999, before the dot com bubble burst. Americans always want more, whether that’s larger vehicles, more powerful engines, or more range from their EVs.
The Silverado EV2 could have given Americans all of that. Consider the dual-motor EVs of today – Chevy could have put EV1 motors at the front and rear of a specially hydroformed GMT800 frame. They already made 40 configurations of said frame, after all, what’s one or two more between friends? That same frame could house those new NiMH batteries with ease – and a lot more of them, too. Especially considering all the space that would be freed up by jettisoning the Vortec V8 and 4L60-E automatic transmission.
Imagine it. A pair of 137 horsepower EV1 motors for a combined 274 hp – that’s four more than the 270 hp rating on the 5.3 Vortec that same year. With all the torque available at zero rpm, an electric Silverado would be just as fun around town as the Vortec with its notoriously snappy throttle tip-in. And if the EV1 could get 140-odd miles out of 900 lbs. of battery, surely a Silverado-based EV2 could get to 200 miles with 1500 lbs. of battery.
Even in 1999, nothing needed to be invented to make this happen. Heck, with the $500 million check that the Clinton administration gave GM to subsidize the EV1’s development, nothing really needed to be spent to make it happen. All it would have taken was some forward-thinking marketers, a little ingenuity from the engineers, a clever understanding of how to bring electricity to the job site from the commercial truck guys, and a lot of balls from GM’s top brass.
Alas, one look at the late-90s Pontiac Bonneville or Grand Am and their acres of tacky plastic body side cladding – which were already an industry joke when those cars were launched – will tell you that none of those things existed at GM.
A STEP TOO FAR
Back when I was working at Mosler Automotive in the late ‘90s, some of Detroit’s most influential executives (guys like Dave McLellan and Joe Ziomek) were coming to see us because we (well, Warren Mosler and Rod Trenne) were the first people to design a car entirely on a computer. That’s a fact that is so staggering to me that I often forget just how incredible it was that I got to be the one looking over Trenne’s shoulder as a 19- or 20-year-old kid.
Then it hits me: If GM were so far removed from the future on something like CAD back then, I can see why an electric Silverado might be too much of an ask, even from our automotive time-travelling Sam Beckett. This one probably would have taken a whole team of car-enthusiast time travelers to make happen, and at least two or three DeLoreans.
All the same, I think it would have been an incredible machine – one that could have stamped GM’s authority on all things innovative and electric for the next 20 to 40 years. But that’s just me – what do the Best and Brightest think? You know the drill, so scroll on down to the comments and tell us what you think.
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