The Enfield Thunderbolt: An electric car before its time

Enfield restoration project

Earlier this year Nissan began production in Sunderland of the Leaf, the first electric car to be mass-produced in the UK. But 40 years ago, about 100 electric cars were built on the Isle of Wight to a design that was years ahead of its time.

The Enfield 8000 was a prototype electric vehicle which emerged out of a competition run by the United Kingdom Electricity Council in 1966.

Enfield Automotive beat rival bidders like Ford for the contract and made more than 100 cars at its works on the Isle of Wight.

With a top speed of 48mph (77km/h) and a range of up to 56 miles (90km), the car was aimed at low mileage urban users, and was expected to supply a much needed boost to Britain's export push.

The vehicle was designed round a chassis of square cross-section steel tubing with panels made of lightweight aluminium.

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  • Listen to The Enfield Thunderbolt on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 30 November at 10:30 GMT

The car's power came from eight 6V battery monoblocks, and an onboard charger meant it could simply be connected to the domestic mains through a socket in the back.

"The principle was much the same as a modern electric car," according to Radio 4 presenter Peter Curran, who has bought and restored an Enfield 8000.

He says: "It was small, square and squat, but somehow futuristic with a beautiful curving windscreen. It had a cheekiness and came in a variety of colours - red, orange and blue. To the casual observer it looked a bit like a supersized Spangle."

Peter Curran with his Enfield 8000 Peter Curran with his Enfield 8000

The car performed well and was favourably reviewed by the motoring press at the time. Its acceleration was considered impressive (0-30 mph in 12.5 seconds), it passed the Department of Transport's crash tests with flying colours and when placed in a wind tunnel showed it had a better drag coefficient than a Porsche.

Valerie Singleton and John Noakes have a go at driving the Enfield 8000.

In November 1969, the Enfield 8000 was shown off at the first ever international symposium on electric vehicles, held in Phoenix, Arizona, where it caught the eye of Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California.

Start Quote

We used to get irate phone calls from gas station owners across the States yelling 'You're putting me out of business!'”

End Quote Sir John Samuel

"We took a truck across America with two Enfields on the back," says Sir John Samuel, who was leading the delegation. "Some people just looked at them and laughed, but Ronnie Reagan was astounded, and he said, 'Why can't we do this here?'"

Governor Reagan offered to find a factory site in California, promising healthy subsidies and guaranteed orders. He even suggested giving the cars to all home-buyers on the island of Santa Catalina off the California coast, where the use of petrol-driven vehicles was - and still is - heavily restricted.

But Enfield Automotive's owner John Goulandris, who was from a wealthy Greek shipping family, turned down Reagan's offer and chose to continue production in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Some have suggested Goulandris rejected Reagan's offer because he was under pressure from the oil industry and had significant shipping business with them.

Samuel, who went on to work on a number of other groundbreaking electric cars in the US, sensed the antagonism towards electric vehicles from those in the oil industry at the time.

The Enfield 8000 is shown to the Electricity Board Electricity Board members are given an early demonstration of the Enfield 8000

"We used to get irate phone calls from gas station owners across the States yelling 'You're putting me out of business!'" he recalls.

In 1973 Goulandris switched production to the Greek island of Syros, although the parts were sent back to the UK to be assembled.

But sales were sluggish.

"Along with the modest range, the main deterrent was really the price," says enthusiast Peter Williams. "It was being offered at £2,600. Back then, for that sort of money, you could buy two Minis."

In May 1976, production stopped altogether.

But many of today's electric cars - including those being manufactured by Renault, Nissan and BMW - owe a considerable debt to the Enfield 8000, which showed the world that a small urban car powered by rechargeable batteries was a real possibility.

Enfield 8000 battery The car's power comes from battery monoblocks...
Enfield 8000 charger ...and an onboard charger allows the car to be connected to the mains

After being used as promotional vehicles by the electricity boards for many years, most of the Enfield 8000s were scrapped in the 1980s, but a handful remain in the hands of museums and collectors.

As interest in electric cars increases and good examples get scarcer, the price of surviving Enfield cars is sure to increase.

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A number of owners are planning to adapt and refine the 70s technology, replacing the heavy original lead acid batteries with lightweight lithium ones, and dramatically increasing the range of the car.

TV presenter Jonny Smith has equipped his 1974 Enfield with a high power battery enabling it to compete on the Hot Rod track.

"I want something that shows what the little Enfield was capable of, and I really believe it can be a supercar slayer," he says.

Enthusiasts like Peter Williams believe it is time for the Enfield to take its rightful place in British motoring history alongside cars like the MG, Mini and the Jaguar E-Type.

Its pioneering role was recently recognised by the organisers of the London-Brighton veteran car run, who allowed a 1973 Enfield 8000 owned by Clive Williams from Manchester to accompany much older cars on the annual rally.

The car was driven in the run by Peter Curran, who says: "It has impressive acceleration, and driving around central London on a quiet Sunday morning was a real joy.

"The final coast downhill to the finish line at Brighton was incredibly exhilarating. But in a strange metaphor for the story of its production, the car finally ran out of charge less than a mile from home."

Listen to The Enfield Thunderbolt on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 30 November at 10:30 GMT or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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Here is a selection of your comments.

I was in the marketing department at SWEB in 1970 and well remember driving one of these cars. Our Chairman, Bill Irens is in your photo, second from the right and he was famed for being an innovator. I remember taking the family out to pick blackberries in an Enfield one evening, just North of Bristol, and the batteries ran out about a mile from home. I had to ask a local garage to plug it in to recharge, and the next day when I collected it there were greasy finger marks all over as the garage staff had examined it out of curiosity! They refused to charge me for the electricity, which had been measured by a meter in the boot.

Mark Wood-Robinson, Bristol, UK

What about the Scottish Aviation SCAMP build in 1965 and drove by Striling Moss. They were used by the electricity board as well. It had a wooden frame.

Peter Perrin, Alloway, Ayrshire

One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing one of these cars being used on the school run by a neighbour who had it as part of a trial being run by the Eastern Electricity board in Ipswich - I remember going to play with their kids at their house, and being amazed to see a power cable running out of the garage into the car to charge it!

Mark Woolley, Munich, Germany

The car was initially intended for the London Electricity Board to be used by electric meter readers in the city. It was visualised that they would be charged at parking meters. The team building the cars were highly enthusiastic and I was allowed to drive the car around the factory. The show stopper being the open top Beach Buggy with a bamboo body, as demonstrated on the Riviera Beaches, which even by today standards the flowing body lines were eye catching.

Reg. J. White, Darlington

I remember the "Electric Enfield" very well. At the time it was being made (Mid 1970's) I was a Transport engineer with the North eastern Electricity Board (NEEB) in Newcastle upon Tyne. I was responsible for the operation and trials of an orange coloured Enfield. I found it a delight to drive, acceleration away from traffic lights was fantastic for the first 100 yards or so, and left many a "Boy Racer" open jawed in disbelief. Since it would only seat two persons (Including the driver) plus there being little storage/stowage space due the lead acid cells taking up the rear seat area it had limited use. I found it functioned best when used by Meter Readers as they had no tools or parts to carry, and they were on a constant "stop- start" cycle. I used it myself on many occasions, my best run being a return trip from Newcastle to Hexham and back. The main problem we experienced was with the batteries and associated charging equipment. Maintaining all cells at the same voltage was damn near impossible, even with overnight equalising. Steering was also a bit heavy and if travelling at speed one required a heavy foot to stop the beast. Using today's high density lightweight batteries it could make a British rival to the 2 seater Smart electric. Very happy memories of it.

Howel Parfitt, Bristol

In the mid 90's I restored two Enfields. We did a number of races and rallies in them as part of the University of Wales. We had great fun. We beat a number of major car companies who were spending a fortune on development. The only thing we did was change the batteries for new ones. My wife to be, at the time, used them as her daily driver for almost a year in and around Cardiff. You used to get some great looks bombing around the town. Fantastic cars - just way ahead of their time.

Andrew Warr, Stetchworth

The other two Thunderbolts attracted much more attention than this one.The other two were of course George Eyston's world speed record car and the Titfield Thunderbolt. Now who remembers that one?

David G Leggett, Cublac, France

Nice to see proper appreciation for the Enfield. I was involved in the restoration and running of two of these vehicles owned by a Brighton based electric vehicle enthusiast and private collector back in the early eighties. They arrived in a pretty poor state, without batteries and some parts missing or broken, but were soon back on the road. Very easy to drive and lots of fun at the lights. Even with a fairly standard battery installation, we left many surprised people watching us disappear up the road.

David Lincoln-Howells, Worthing, England

In the 70s, when I was a child, my Dad used to 'borrow' an electric car from work that looked very similar to the one shown in your article. He worked at ATL, which was the Electricity Board's safety testing laboratories in Leatherhead, Surrey. I guess that the cars were submitted for testing. I remember seeing an orange one and a silver one on various occasions and us kids thought they were great!

Leila Hodgkins, Shepton Mallet, Somerset UK

My Grandad worked on this project for the Electricity Council and actually had one at home! I remember going out for a drive in the Enfield on weekends - some 30 years ago now. Shame it didn't make it into mass production. Years ahead of its time.

Andy Scott, Guildford, Surrey

These things are hardly ground breaking, electric cars were the norm in the early 1900s.

Ian, Nottingham

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