The Story Behind The Forgotten 20th Century Three-wheeled Danish EV, The CityEl - SUV VEHICLE

The Story Behind The Forgotten 20th Century Three-wheeled Danish EV, The CityEl

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Summary

  • The CityEl, a quirky three-wheeled electric vehicle, showcased the potential of EVs and paved the way for future innovations.
  • Despite its limitations, the CityEl proved that electric cars could be practical and functional for daily commutes and errands.
  • The CityEl’s legacy lives on as an inspiration for continued innovation in the EV sector, reminding us that even small endeavors can have far-reaching impacts.



Before sleek Teslas dominated the roads and electric vehicles (EVs) became commonplace, a curious three-wheeled contraption named the CityEl hummed through Copenhagen’s streets in the late 20th century. This unassuming electric pioneer, largely forgotten today, deserves recognition for its unique design, innovative spirit, and the story it tells about the nascent days of electric mobility. The 1970s, marked by the oil crisis and rising environmental concerns, saw EVs emerge as a promising alternative.

In Denmark, a nation known for its environmental consciousness and innovation, industrial designer, Steen Volmer Jensen, envisioned a small, efficient electric vehicle perfect for Copenhagen’s bustling streets. In 1974, Jensen’s vision materialized as the CityEl. This quirky three-wheeler, sporting a fiberglass body and an electric motor, offered a modest range suitable for city commutes. Despite its unconventional looks, the CityEl boasted advantages: its compact size conquered tight urban spaces, its electric motor ensured zero emissions, and its low running costs were attractive amidst rising fuel prices.


However, the CityEl faced challenges. Limited battery range and long charging times, limitations of the era, hindered wider adoption. Its unconventional design and niche market positioning made it a hard sell for mainstream consumers. Today, as electric vehicles experience a global resurgence, the CityEl stands as a reminder of the early days of this technology and the unwavering spirit of innovation that drove its development. While largely forgotten by the mainstream, its story offers valuable insights and serves as a source of inspiration as the world moves towards a more sustainable future of transport.

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While none of the CityEl manufacturers maintain websites, this article leverages various archives and other publications such as the New York Times and the deRivaz & Ives magazine to deliver the most up-to-date and accurate information possible.



From Humble Beginnings To Electric Epiphany

CityEl
Anachrocomputer via Wikimedia

The CityEl’s journey began in 1987, a time when environmental consciousness was blossoming on the global stage. In the heart of Randers, Denmark, El Trans A/S, a local company, sought to address these concerns with a novel solution: a lightweight, electric vehicle designed for navigating cityscapes. They named their creation the Mini-El, a fitting moniker for its compact stature and pared-down design. This two-seater, three-wheeled marvel boasted a unique tilting roof for entry, offering a peek into what urban transportation might hold in the future.

Innovation And Resilience In Face Of Challenges

CityEl Fact 4
Lothar Spurzem via Wikimedia


However, the path to widespread adoption proved far from smooth. El Trans A/S encountered financial hurdles, leading to a cessation of production in 1988. Despite this setback, the CityEl’s innovative spirit persevered. Two companies, Eltrans89 A/S, and CityCom A/S, emerged in succession, each striving to revive the vehicle with their own modifications. Despite their efforts, commercial viability remained an elusive goal.

CityEl Specs

Seats

One + optional child seat

Doors

One

Length

107.9 inches

Width

41.7 inches

Payload

375 pounds (170 kg)

Trunk Volume

9.9 cubic feet (280 liters)

Ground Clearance

4.724 inches (120 mm)

Curb Weight

507 pounds (230 kg) including battery


(Specs sourced from CityEl Web Archive)

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A New Lease On Life For The CityEl

The CityEl’s story took an unexpected turn in 1995 when a German investor acquired the rights and relocated the company to Aub, Germany. This marked the beginning of a new chapter, characterized by a renewed focus on improving the vehicle’s performance and marketability.

The new management team at Citycom Electromoblie Denmark A/S understood the need to address the limitations that had hindered the CityEl’s previous success. They introduced a series of updates aimed at making the vehicle more appealing to a wider range of potential buyers.


Powering Up The CityEl For Range And Efficiency

CityEl Lithium-ion Battery Pack
Aminorjourney via Wikimedia

One of the most significant advancements was the introduction of the FactFour model. This version boasted a more powerful four kW electric motor, offering a considerably extended range of up to 90 kilometers. This addressed a major concern for potential buyers – range anxiety – as it made the CityEl a more practical option for daily commutes.

Furthermore, the introduction of lithium-ion battery options provided a significant boost to the vehicle’s performance and efficiency. These batteries offered advantages such as lighter weight, faster charging times, and longer lifespans compared to the lead-acid batteries used in earlier models.


CityEl Powertrain Specs

Motor

Battery

Top Speed

Range

Consumption

Series 1

0.8 kW

3×80 Ah Lead Acid

40-55 km/h

37.8-43.50 miles (60-70 km)

7-9 kW·h/62.137 miles (100 km)

Series 2

2.5 kW

3×80 Ah Lead Acid

40-55 km/h

24.85-31.07 miles (40-50 km)

7-9 kW·h/62.137 miles (100 km)

FactFour (Lead Acid)

4 kW

4x Lead Acid

63 km/h

43.50-55.92 miles (70-90 km)

3.5-5 kW·h/62.137 miles (100 km)

FactFour (Lithium-ion)

4 kW

Lithium-Ion

63 km/h

>74.565 miles (120 km)

N/A

Upgraded CityEl

4.5 kW

43V 100Ah Lithium-ion

50+ km/h

N/A

N/A

4.5 kW CityEl

4.5 kW

48V 60-100 Ah Lithium Iron Phosphate

N/A

43.50-55.92 miles (70-90 km)

N/A

(Specs sourced from CityEl Web Archive and New York Times Archive)

The German era of the CityEl was marked by a strategic shift in focus. The new management team prioritized improvements that directly addressed the concerns and needs of potential customers. By enhancing the vehicle’s range, performance, and efficiency, they sought to position the CityEl as a more viable and attractive option in the growing electric vehicle market.


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A Quirky Charm That Endures

The CityEl’s unique design and driving experience have carved a niche amongst microcars, captivating a dedicated community of enthusiasts. Despite its unconventional appearance, characterized by the slanted roof and single headlight, the CityEl’s charm lies in its functionality. Its lightweight build and agile handling make it adept at navigating tight city streets, offering an alternative to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

The CityEl Transcends Mere Transportation

CityEl
Clément Bucco-Lechat via Wikimedia


Beyond its technical aspects, the CityEl fosters a sense of belonging among its owners. Online forums dedicated to the car buzz with activity, reflecting the strong following it has cultivated. Owners find joy in personalizing their CityEls, tailoring them to their individual tastes and performance preferences, solidifying the car’s place as more than just a means of transportation but a canvas for self-expression.

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Paving The Way For A Sustainable Future

CityEl
CityEl via Wikimedia

While commercially short-lived, the CityEl’s contribution to the electric vehicle (EV) landscape transcends its sales figures. It stands as a notable pioneer, emerging at a time when EVs were a nascent technology and the very concept of urban electric mobility was unfamiliar. Its significance lies not just in its design and features, but in the broader impact it had on the trajectory of EV development.


  • A Trailblazer In Uncharted Territory: The CityEl entered a virtually uncharted territory. Concerns about air quality and fossil fuel dependence were simmering, but the EV industry was in its early stages. The CityEl dared to venture where few had been, offering a glimpse into the possibilities of electric cars tailored for urban environments. Its compact size, maneuverability, and zero-emission operation made it a compelling proposition for navigating congested cityscapes.
  • Demonstrating The Potential Of EVs: Despite its limitations, the CityEl successfully showcased the potential of EVs. It proved that electric cars could be practical and functional, capable of meeting the demands of daily commutes and errands. Its real-world use provided valuable insights into the performance, range, and usability of EVs, informing the development of future generations.
  • A Stepping Stone For Future Innovations: The CityEl’s legacy extends beyond its immediate existence. The lessons learned from its design, engineering, and production have served as valuable stepping stones for future EV advancements. Its pioneering spirit and practical approach paved the way for more refined and commercially viable electric vehicles that dominate the roads today.
  • A Legacy Of Inspiration: The CityEl’s story serves as an inspiration for continued innovation in the EV sector. It reminds the industry that even seemingly small-scale endeavors can have far-reaching impacts. Its legacy lies not only in its technical specifications, but also in its contribution to the broader vision of sustainable transportation and a cleaner future.


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In conclusion, the CityEl, though commercially short-lived, stands as a testament to early electric vehicle innovation. From its humble beginnings in Denmark to its adaptations in Germany, it tackled uncharted territory, showcasing the potential of EVs at a time when they were a novelty. Despite limitations, the CityEl proved the viability of electric cars for urban commutes, providing valuable insights that paved the way for future advancements.

According to the New York Times, over 5,500 MiniEls and CityEls were sold between 1989 and August 2007. Today, as electric vehicles surge in popularity, the CityEl’s legacy lives on, serving as an inspiration for continued innovation and a reminder that even seemingly small endeavors can contribute to a cleaner, more sustainable future. Its quirky charm and enduring spirit continue to captivate enthusiasts, solidifying its place as a pioneer in the electric mobility revolution.


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