Pictured Above: 1969 GM XP-511, XP-512H, XP-512E, XP-512G
In 1969, General Motors experimented with “urban cars” to increase gas mileage. This is proof that GM planned to get in front of the potential OPEC oil control problems and the predicted energy shortages. The world was told that the world’s oil reserves were running on empty, and we would be out of the resource by 2020.
General Motors invited press members to the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, to show them several future mobility concepts it had developed. The GM XP 512 series was a three-car lineup of tiny two-person city cars intended for use in congested areas or short trips to the store. There was also a GM XP 511 concept.
While GM presented electric, gasoline (GM XP-512G), and hybrid (GM XP-512H) versions of the 512, the most impressive variant was the electric one (GM XP-512E). With an 84-volt Delco-Remy lead-acid battery and DC Delco-Remy electric motor, the little city car had a range of 58 miles when traveling at a consistent pace of 25 miles per hour. It could be charged up at a 115-volt household outlet, which would take about 7 hours to fill the battery. According to the GM Heritage Center, the car has a wheelbase of just 52 inches, an overall length of 86.3 inches, and a width of 56 inches. It tipped the scales at 1,250 pounds, heavy considering its size but not bad for a vehicle with a 1960s lead-acid battery onboard.
The hybrid GM XP 512 was also rather innovative for the time and was one of the world’s first-ever gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. It used a tiny 200cc engine, a DC electric motor, and a 72-volt lead-acids that could operate in both pure electric or hybrid mode and, like the EV, could be recharged using a standard 115-volt outlet. The vehicle boasted an estimated electric range of 5.2 miles at a sustained speed of 30 mph, while the content in hybrid mode was 150 miles using just three gallons of gas. The top speed in hybrid mode was also 35 miles per hour, making it faster than the EV.
The GM 512 is the red car in the demonstration video below, while the hybrid is the blue car. The two roofless cars (like the one pictured below) are the gas version, which used a two-cylinder engine, variable-ratio v-belt transmission, and four-gallon fuel tank, giving it a top speed of 45 mph and a range of about 280 miles.
While the GM XP 512 didn’t catch on at GM in the late 1960s, the car turned out to be a relatively accurate depiction of the future of mobility. GM’s Chinese joint venture partner, SAIC Wuling, has seen immediate success selling its Baojun E-Series of electric city cars, essentially modern-day versions of the electric GM XP 512. The Smart brand was built on the same idea, as well, and while it hasn’t caught on in North America, Smart sales are still strong in other markets. According to Daimler, the brand sold 130,000 vehicles in 40 markets worldwide in 2018. Toyota is also working on a city car similar to the Baojun E-Series, which will be sold in Japan.
The GM XP 512 currently sits in the GM Heritage Center. Check out the video embedded below to see all three versions of the car in action, and click here for some additional photos of the electric version in the collection.
Lastly, one of GM’s urban vehicle program jewels was the two-seat XP-511 commuter car. Engineers came up with a side-by-side two-seater with three-wheels, looking to shrink down the size of personal vehicles for travel around the city or to and from the suburbs and office. The XP-511’s low center of gravity made it a fun and stable car to drive, especially on curvy roads.
According to GM engineers, two-different steering designs were tried in the vehicle. The first was a handlebar setup with a 2:1 ratio; the other; was the traditional steering wheel system with a 9:1 ratio. The three-wheel setup was a conventional tricycle design with a tiny wheel up front and two rear wheels. Despite the effort, saving fuel was not in fashion at the time, so GM never took the design to production.