Bulgaria’s Electric Vehicles Decades Before Musk

While cars made in the Soviet Union were often mocked by westerners, communist Bulgaria had a hidden gem - an electric vehicle with far superior capabilities to similar projects developed at the time by Ford and Hitachi.

View of a woman charging the vintage electric car
While most people today associate electric cars with pioneering companies like Tesla or Rimac, they have actually been around a lot longer than most would assume - like this 1966 EV made by Eureka Williams Corporation. Photo by PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Elon Musk was not the first to dabble in electric vehicles. Inventors were working on electric prototypes as far back as the 19th century. Meet Scottish inventor Robert Anderson: the man who built an “electric carriage” in the 1830s, almost 50 years before German automotive engineer Carl Benz received a patent for his two-stroke internal combustion engine. Alas, Robert Anderson’s carriage and similar electric vehicle prototypes at the time were more of a hype than success.

Humble beginnings of EVs

Anderson’s EV had a problem – its batteries couldn’t be recharged. Another Scot named Robert Davidson had a more successful project. In 1841 his electric locomotive had enough battery power to travel 1.5 miles and at a speed of 4 mph. Unfortunately, after a perhaps too-successful demonstration of the capabilities of his invention, railway workers destroyed the prototype in fear of losing their steam-engine-dependent jobs.  

A little while later, things were looking great for the EV sector on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Believe it or not, in the early 1900s, there were up to 600 electric taxis in New York City, with an entire stadium converted into a massive recharging station. Even Thomas Edison designed an electric car at the time. However, the inventor and his friend Henry Ford soon concluded that using fossil fuel was better. The reason was simple – apart from big cities, electricity wasn’t very widely available. 

The ELMO 70 – Bulgaria’s “Tesla” before Tesla

Let’s now move over to the Eastern Bloc: Bulgaria, to be more precise. In 1967, Bulgarian engineers developed a small EV prototype that weighed only 860 kg. This electric vehicle for two passengers paved the way for further innovation. Two years later, the ELMO 70 was born. On the outside, it looked like just another underperforming vehicle made in the factories in Soviet Russia. However, on the inside, it carried an electric engine.

The small engine, weighing only 65 kg, had 85 percent “energy conversion efficiency.” In other words, it was three times more efficient than internal combustion engines. But it was not only the engine that impressed. The battery had almost two times the capacity of Japan’s Hitachi products. And seven times more than the EV batteries developed by Ford Motor Corporation, which was also starting to look more seriously into the sector at the time.

Despite outperforming technologies from both sides of the Iron Curtain, ELMO 70 failed to launch. There hasn’t ever been any official statement saying why, although the innovations within the batteries of these prototypes are still researched even today in the USA, Australia, and Japan. And it’s a pity. ELMO 70 and its 240 km mileage is still impressive, given that nearly 50 years later, the average range of an EV is around 290-300 km.

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