No question exists over whether the BMW i3 is a remarkable and innovative car. From its carbon fiber-reinforced plastic body shell to its electric powertrain, not to mention the option of a range-extending engine, almost everything about it is different from other BMW models.
But the i3 isn’t the first radical attempt by BMW to rethink the way it designs cars. It’s just the first one to make it into production.
BMW has experimented with electric cars multiple times over the years, including building another small city car that could be considered the i3’s direct ancestor. The BMW E1 electric car debuted at the 1991 Frankfurt Motor Show, but never went into production — and was fondly remembered in a recent post by BMW Blog.
The E1 was developed by BMW’s now-defunct Technik research division on the assumption that an electric car’s relatively short range would matter less in city driving. It had a sodium-nickel chloride battery pack operating at temperatures up to 245 °C (473 °F), estimated to provide 93 miles of range using the testing procedures of the time.
That’s comparable to many of today’s electric cars — including the i3 — but the E1’s 43 horsepower leaves something to be desired. At least the powertrain had relatively little weight to push around.
Like the i3, the E1 was constructed with a focus on lightweight materials, with an aluminum chassis and plastic body panels. Despite its innovative design, though, the E1 didn’t prove particularly successful. The sole prototype caught fire while charging and burned to the ground.
BMW halted the project shortly after that — and didn’t return to electric cars for almost a decade. It launched a test fleet of 200 MINI E electric conversions in 2008, and followed that up with another fleet using the ActiveE, based on the 1 Series coupe. Both models were built for public trials that BMW used to gather data on consumers’ use of electric cars. That ultimately proved useful in the development of the i3, which launched amid greater demand for electric cars than executives could have imagined when the E1 first appeared.
In that sense, you could say the E1 was ahead of its time.