Tuesday, August 16, 2022


In the 5th part of Secret Isle of Wight, we examine the history of the pioneering Enfield electric car, which was designed and put together here on the Isle of Wight.

Did you know that the 1st truly modern electric car – the Enfield 8000 – was assembled at Somerton Works in Northwood back in 1973?

Electric cars have a long history. The 1st electric vehicle had been built back in 1884 by Thomas Parker in London. Ferdinand Porsche started the Porsche brand in 1898 with an electric car. Between 1900 and 1912, 1/3 of all vehicles on US roads were powered by electricity.

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Electric cars enjoyed a heyday that lasted until Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T: the world’s first affordable motor car. Easier to refuel and competitively priced, the Ford Model T spelled the end of the electric car’s popularity.

Everything went very quiet for the electric car. Then – in the 60s and 70s – the price of petrol skyrocketed, allowing electric alternatives to reappear.

In 1973, a breakthrough was made when British chemist Stanley Whittingham invented the world’s first rechargeable lithium-ion batteries: the same batteries that are used in things like your mobile phone and today’s electric cars. This caused the creation of the 2nd generation of electric cars. New technologies appeared, batteries improved, and car companies began to build electric vehicles.

The Enfield 8000 was a product of its time, confronting the very real possibility during the 1973/4 fuel crisis that petrol supplies might dry up.

It was built by Enfield Automotive, a British company owned by Greek shipping magnate, Giannis Goulandris. The parts were made in the Greek island of Syros, but the car was assembled at Northwood. The 1st Enfield 8000 rolled off the production line in 1973.

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The prototype for the Enfield 8000 was designed by Ryde resident John Ackroyd (1937-2021), who went on to design Thrust 2, which held the world land speed record from 1983 to 1987.

The Enfield 8000 had an aluminum body, used Hillman Imp suspension, and had a rear axle based on a Reliant 3-wheeler. The brakes, wheels, and doors came from the Mini.

The project had the backing of the Electricity Council. Of the 120 Enfields built between 1974 and 1977, more than half were bought by the Electricity Board and used by its meter readers.

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On the road, the 8000 was said to be simple to drive, with no gears (there was a separate switch that just ran the motor backwards for reversing), nifty handling, an acute turning circle and was apparently a remarkably smooth ride. California Governor Ronald Reagan (the future president) was so taken with the Enfield that he offered to subsidize the building of a factory to produce the cars in his clean-air state of California.

The bad news was that it was slow: up to 10mph the acceleration felt brisk, but soon tailed away to virtually nothing as the car struggled with its 1,000kg weight. Nor was it especially quiet, as the generator hummed like that of a milk float.

Range was a problem, given that there was no infrastructure for recharging. A 6-hour overnight charge could give the claimed 40-mile range; this could drop to 15 miles in cold weather.

With the public, the Enfield 8000 was a flop. For the price of a Rover 2200, you got a tiny 2-seater with few accessories (not even a heater) that looked something akin to a government-issued disability vehicle.

Just as things had started to sound promising for the electric car, petrol prices began to fall and interest waned. The Electricity Board cars were sold off in the early 80s. It seemed that the then unfashionable Enfield would sink into obscurity.

However, in 2015, motoring journalist Johnny Smith converted an original Enfield into a record breaker. His car – renamed the Flux Capacitor – broke the European speed record for a battery-operated vehicle when it traveled at 118.38 mph at the Santa Pod racetrack in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.

The story of John Ackroyd and the development of the 1st modern electric car is told in Secret Isle of Wight by Andy Bull.

Secret Isle of Wight can be purchased at Waterstones and all good local retailers and can also be bought directly from Amberley at https://www.amberley-books.com/secret-isle-of-wight.html.

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