EV History: The Lightning Precedes The Thunder

In 1988, a bunch of engineers from Hotzenwald, East Germany, came together and decided that it is time for the future of mobility: A new, more modern and environmentally friendly car should put an end to fossils and emissions while still being fun to drive. “It should become a new kind of car. Smaller, lighter, cleaner – and more beautiful” is how future CEO Thomas Albiez described his mission. For the first time in automotive history, this series car would be designed as an all-electric vehicle from the start and set a new standard for mobility. The project was given the codename “Hotzenblitz” (“Hotzen Bolt”) to indicate how the idea came to them: Like a lightning bolt. The snarky regional term also came with a double meaning: Imaginary lightning bolts, used for insurance fraud.

Hotzenblitz frame construction (origin unknown, image source)

Unnoticed by the rest of the world, they founded Hotzenblitz Mobile. Industrial Designer Harold Schurz was contracted to design the chassis for the Hotzenblitz, which was then modeled into a prototype chassis. The self-funded team moved fast. An external motorsports company helped to develop the tubular steel frame, and soon their vision took on shape. After the team had fitted a motor and transmission into the frame, CEO Thomas Albiez himself installed the traction battery and drive train. The team felt confident with the result, and in July 1990, during an open house day in the office, they somewhat spontaneously decided to call Green Tech entrepreneur and chocolate mogul Alfred Ritter.

Alfred Ritter had experienced financial losses after the Chernobyl Disaster. Many agricultural regions, including several hazelnut plantations that were vital to Alfred’s chocolate business, were irreversibly lost to the fallout contamination. It was then when he turned to the green energy business, founding the Paradigma group to manufacture solar collector systems and pellet heaters. When Thomas and the team called, Alfred jumped on the idea of an electric car. In the same year, Alfred Ritter and his sister Marli Hoppe-Ritter became shareholders in the company and helped to finance the future of the Hotzenblitz.

After 19 months of development, ending in 1990, the team was ready to present their first prototype of the Hotzenblitz, the “EL Sport”, to the press. The little 4-seater semi-convertible was pretty impressive for the time. The design featured tiny lens headlights and had a fancy door opening mechanism — a must-have detail for any futuristic car. A cockpit full of modern LCD instruments welcomed the driver. It even had a drawer-like trunk beneath the rear seats.

The little egg was propelled by a 12.5 kW three-phase induction motor that delivered a peak of 16.5 kW (22.5 HP) to a single speed transmission. That’s not much, but thanks to a glass fiber reinforced polyester chassis and the lightweight frame, the prototype vehicle also only weighed about 600 kg (about 1300 pounds) unloaded. The traction battery, a bunch of lead-acid gel cells that sat in an aluminum vat in the bottom of the car, accounted for more than half of the weight. The cells stored a combined 10 kWh of electrical power and, combined with recuperative braking, gave the car a range of about 70 km (43.5 miles). Next to a 2 kW onboard charger, the traction battery also featured a battery management and diagnosis system, aptly named BADICHEQ (Battery Diagnostic and Charge Equalizing). The system actively balanced the cells, provided battery status and range information on a character LCD in the cockpit, and could be hooked up to a PC through a serial interface for diagnostics.

In terms of acceleration and driving pleasure, the supposed 27 W/kg power-to-weight ratio put the Hotzenblitz in the range of an autocycle. However, the top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph) was enough to keep the project moving. If you know how press presentations work, you can imagine that the first testers of the Hotzenblitz may have experienced a slightly higher performing vehicle. It probably was quite convincing, and the Hotzenblitz earned some good reviews from the press. Despite the fact that the Hotzenblitz was a quirky, expensive mini-car, it convinced other parties to pour more money into the project. There were plans to use the car as a delivery vehicle for the German Mail, and many others saw similar opportunities in the low per-mile and operating cost of the electric vehicle.

The team moved on to overhaul the prototype design, converting it into something that could go into series production. The expensive, custom headlights were dropped in favor of ready-made ones from a large automotive supplier. The futuristic dashboard instruments, except for the battery and range gauge, were replaced by conventional ones supplied by Ford. Because the car couldn’t provide heat from an engine, an additional diesel heater had to be installed to provide heating and allow for better battery performance at cold temperatures. After the all-encompassing reality-treatment, the supposed series model weighed about 780 kg unloaded. With the motor and drive train unchanged, that difference was quite noticeable.

Nevertheless, the funding allowed for the production to get rolling, and the Suhler Fahrzeugwerk GmbH, which was the new operator of the old Simson factory, was contracted to manufacture the Hotzenblitz. Battery upgrades to Zinc-Bromine batteries with a longer range were offered, a stripped down version with textile doors was introduced, and the young company claimed that preorders were piling up. In 1993, the first preproduction models were manufactured and sold to early customers.

Only very few of this segmented ABS version were actually built (by J. Hammerschmidt, CC BY-SA 3.0, image source)

With the preproduction running, it quickly became apparent, that the seamless, hand laminated composite chassis could not be produced at reasonable rates. Additionally, the finish of the color coated laminate caused problems. Everything turned out more expensive and less fast-moving than expected. The team worked out a replacement for the troublesome chassis, and an external company was contracted to develop a segmented ABS version. The new chassis could be produced in an automated thermoforming process and didn’t require color coating, which helped to increase the production speed and lower the cost.

However, the ineffective production of cars was burning through the company’s financial reserves, and by the time the changes towards a final production model were implemented, the financial situation of the company was already beyond repair. In 1995 the company urgently had to find new investors to keep the operations going long enough to eventually become profitable. It slowly became apparent that EVs and mini-cars were a thing, but also — and more quickly — that the Hotzenblitz would not live up to any of the expectations. The new chassis was heavier and lowered the now 830 kg heavy car’s performance to that of a moped, while the price point of $39,000 to $62,000 (32,000 – 54,000 DM, a.f.i.) suggested luxury.

All that did not add credibility to Thomas Albeit’s projected sales figures of 20,000 units per year, and after all: It took two years to produce only 150 cars. Thomas Albiez had trouble raising the required $138M (120M DM, a.f.i.), and the production was finally stopped in 1996, when the company filed for bankruptcy. Over the course of the following years, new motor and battery technology made leaps, yet it was too late for Hotzenblitz Mobile. A group of investors purchased the remains of the company, but despite their announcement to revive the project, it wasn’t them who developed a new and improved version of the Hotzenblitz.

The “Hylite” Hydrogen fuel-cell version of the Hotzenblitz. (press release, image source)

Instead, the simple, lightweight and hackable construction of the 150 actually built preproduction cars sparked the interest of the hacker community. With a bit of luck, the discontinued model could be obtained at a discount, and it was well worth it to install custom Lithium-Polymer traction batteries, more efficient battery management systems and drive trains into the well-built platform. Small businesses even started assembling “new” Hotzenblitzes from gathered spare parts and custom electronics. Almost a decade after it’s death, the Hotzenblitz development reached its actual peak. In 2005, a research project by the German Aerospace Center brought forth a hydrogen fuel-cell based version, the Hotzenblitz Hylite. And in 2007, a swiss engineering team presented a beefed up version that could travel 350 km on a single charge.

The Hotzenblitz was not the first electric series car, other manufacturers offered electrified versions of their previously gas-fueled models before. But it was the first electric “series” car that was built, from scratch, as an EV. Today, the funny relic and milestone of electrical mobility is a desired collector’s item, and even non-operational ones are pretty hard to get. It is the last car ever built in the Simson factory, which indeed had a knack for manufacturing weird cult vehicles. Some of them are still around, waiting to be hacked.

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