By on September 29, 2021

Chevy

In 1996, General Motors unveiled the first modern electric car: The EV1. Built to prove that GM could satisfy California’s then-new zero-emissions regulations, the EV1 was a quick, efficient, electric two-seater that could be plugged into a standard 110 outlet. By all accounts, the car was well-loved by its owners lessors, but wasn’t profitable enough for GM to make a business case for the development of an EV2. GM halted production after the 1999 model year.

What if they hadn’t stopped there, though? What if, instead of cancelling the EV1, GM had decided to build on everything they’d learned about EVs and doubled down on it, using economies of scale to drive down costs to a level that could have been profitable? What if they had a platform that they already knew they were going to make hundreds of thousands of, every year, standing by at the ready? And, finally, what if that platform had been sturdy enough to carry around an extra thousand pounds of battery without breaking a sweat?

They did, and the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2 is the story of GM dominance that never was.

THIS REALLY COULD HAVE WORKED

Take yourself back to 1999, if you can. At the time, the EV1’s cancellation didn’t seem like particularly big news. After all, gas was still relatively cheap and the dollar still relatively strong, by post-COVID standards, and the need to develop EVs seemed like it could wait a generation or two, still. What was big news in 1999, however, was the launch of the similarly loved GMT800 Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup and its Gen-III “Vortec” line of small-block V8 engines. The trucks were fantastic, and I remember admiring the Chevy’s reptilian grille – which sat in sharp contrast to the carp-mouthed, jellybean ugliness of the ’97 Ford F-150, in my opinion.

Fast forward twenty-few years, and Ford is stealing the headlines with its all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup, coming to market with a genuine mainstream contender that offers real-world benefits to commercial customers while, at the same time, using the pickup’s beefy frame to carry an extra-large battery to deliver a very practical 400-ish miles of empty-bed range. Meanwhile, Chevy’s electric Silverado challenger is nowhere to be seen (at least, not as I type this).

It didn’t have to be this way. Chevy should have beaten Ford to the electric pickup punch by two decades – and they could have, by taking everything they’d learned building the EV1 and applying it to the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2.

In 1996, the “first generation” EV1 carried 1300 lbs. of lead-acid batteries good for 75-80 miles of range – but, even then, battery technology advanced quickly. By 1999, the “second generation” EV1 had dropped 400 pounds of battery by switching to the then-new nickel metal hydride (NiMH) “Ovonic” battery pack that slashed charging time and bumped the car’s EPA-rated range to 142 miles.

Those are decent numbers, even today. Compare those numbers to, say, the 110 mile range of a 2020 Mini Cooper SE or the 100 mile range on the 2022 Mazda MX-30 EV, and you might say that GM had a winner – but efficiency has never sold well in America, and that was probably even more true in 1999, before the dot com bubble burst. Americans always want more, whether that’s larger vehicles, more powerful engines, or more range from their EVs.

The Silverado EV2 could have given Americans all of that. Consider the dual-motor EVs of today – Chevy could have put EV1 motors at the front and rear of a specially hydroformed GMT800 frame. They already made 40 configurations of said frame, after all, what’s one or two more between friends? That same frame could house those new NiMH batteries with ease – and a lot more of them, too. Especially considering all the space that would be freed up by jettisoning the Vortec V8 and 4L60-E automatic transmission.

Imagine it. A pair of 137 horsepower EV1 motors for a combined 274 hp – that’s four more than the 270 hp rating on the 5.3 Vortec that same year. With all the torque available at zero rpm, an electric Silverado would be just as fun around town as the Vortec with its notoriously snappy throttle tip-in. And if the EV1 could get 140-odd miles out of 900 lbs. of battery, surely a Silverado-based EV2 could get to 200 miles with 1500 lbs. of battery.

Even in 1999, nothing needed to be invented to make this happen. Heck, with the $500 million check that the Clinton administration gave GM to subsidize the EV1’s development, nothing really needed to be spent to make it happen. All it would have taken was some forward-thinking marketers, a little ingenuity from the engineers, a clever understanding of how to bring electricity to the job site from the commercial truck guys, and a lot of balls from GM’s top brass.

Alas, one look at the late-90s Pontiac Bonneville or Grand Am and their acres of tacky plastic body side cladding – which were already an industry joke when those cars were launched – will tell you that none of those things existed at GM.

A STEP TOO FAR

Back when I was working at Mosler Automotive in the late ‘90s, some of Detroit’s most influential executives (guys like Dave McLellan and Joe Ziomek) were coming to see us because we (well, Warren Mosler and Rod Trenne) were the first people to design a car entirely on a computer. That’s a fact that is so staggering to me that I often forget just how incredible it was that I got to be the one looking over Trenne’s shoulder as a 19- or 20-year-old kid.

Then it hits me: If GM were so far removed from the future on something like CAD back then, I can see why an electric Silverado might be too much of an ask, even from our automotive time-travelling Sam Beckett. This one probably would have taken a whole team of car-enthusiast time travelers to make happen, and at least two or three DeLoreans.

All the same, I think it would have been an incredible machine – one that could have stamped GM’s authority on all things innovative and electric for the next 20 to 40 years. But that’s just me – what do the Best and Brightest think? You know the drill, so scroll on down to the comments and tell us what you think.

[Image: Chevrolet]

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28 Comments on “Quantum Leaps – 1999 Chevy Silverado EV2...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    The end of the day its all about: profit. Even in its dysfunction if GMNA saw clear profit they may have greenlighted something beyond some test mules, but they likely didn’t. I question whether Ford will profit on F-150 EV, surely they got wind of GM’s testing twenty years ago and probably looked at doing it as well. Why didn’t they? Could it be the only reason its being done now its because technocrats and lunatics have a gun to their head? Volt failed but was subsidized by truck profits. Leaf has largely failed and was subsidized by other profit centers. Tesla finally cut a profit but for years it was subsidized by sale of worthless paper to successful competitors, speculators, and dark pools (look it up). Actual successful products do not require subsidy, and GM in 1999 didn’t want to make a loss on every unit of an EV2 while it was already faltering internally from the financial point.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      Yes, Ford Ranger EV and Toyota RAV4 EV were also on the market when EV1 was, what happened to them?

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      That sums it up – manufacturers are about making money. The gas Silverado was a cash cow. Making an electric version may have been technically feasible, and even fairly cost-effective from a manufacturing standpoint, but in the end the product has to sell. In 1999 most people didn’t have much interest in electric cars. Make that virtually everyone interested in a Silverado. As the OP stated, efficiency is a tough sell in America where everyone is conditioned from an early age to think that more and bigger is automatically better. Truck people especially so. Add in that electric at that point in time was considered “green” which to truck people is anathema. So GM got it right – this would not have sold to the intended audience. There’s a reason why Ford advertises the F-150 Lightning on its performance attributes only.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re 100% correct. That said, even if they did get wind of GM’s work, even GM didn’t have the idea to put multiple electric motors in a car, even at each axle. That was the real magic of Model S. Prior to that, every EV to hit the market that I’m aware of (even the weird Corbin and that weird Tango that George Clooney bought) only had one motor. Putting several motors into play changed this from an efficiency play to a performance/technical superiority play, and I guarantee you *NO ONE* at GM was thinking about that, so there was nothing there for Ford to get wind of.

    • 0 avatar
      ffighter69

      I mention this story about 3 weeks ago. Not only that back around 2009 I believe GM had built a hybrid pickup where the electric motor kicks in for that extra omf needed. One of the car magazines compared it against regular ICE GM product it came out ahead on everything except braking I beleive.

  • avatar
    ajla

    First, no need for the Bonneville slam. You’re telling me this car’s styling was so beyond the pale that it needs to be brought up 25 years after production, especially when stuff like the BMW iX and new Tundra exist in the current day? Get off it.
    tinyurl.com/ywjmttk5

    Second, GM *has* offered I believe three different versions of hybrid Silverados over the years at various tech levels and none of them have found much success.

    Third, the EV1 was extremely aerodynamic so I think you’re overestimating the range of a Silverado EV.

    Fourth, how much would this EV truck cost? The Lightning has the advantages of 1.A surprisingly low base price for a large EV yet still 2.Several years of runway where expensive, fancy trucks have found mainstream acceptance. In ’99 trucks were still in a transition phase. There wasn’t even a Silverado 1500 crew cab yet.

    Fifth, GM (and Nissan) did have an early edge in EV development and marketing and (both) completely squandered it anyway.

    I don’t think your proposal is impossible, but it is more complex than “How could these Bonneville-driving morons have missed this chance?”

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Pontiac cladding is ten times less offensive to the let’s puke and call it styling so prevalent now.

    • 0 avatar

      “I don’t think your proposal is impossible, but it is more complex than ‘How could these Bonneville-driving morons have missed this chance?\'”

      I love this comment. You’re right, of course, but that kind of “big picture” thinking would make for a much longer episode. Maybe even a two-parter.

  • avatar
    TimK

    Modern EVs are only possible because of distributed, embedded microprocessors and software that runs the various subsystems. GM had nothing going on to make that happen in ‘99. An electric Silverado would have been as clunky and unreliable as other GM vehicles of the era.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      I would have attributed the current success of EVs much more to improved battery chemistry, rather than controllers and software. To me, a modern EV actually looks less complicated from a controls perspective than an emission-controlled 1999 gas engine truck.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @SPPPP: I agree and would add to that the advances in material science that made the new battery technology possible. New tools allowed them to analyze what was going on inside the batteries giving engineers the ability to address problems like durability.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the kind of thing people always say when I talk about the Twinstar. “How did you sync up the transmissions?” We didn’t. We didn’t need to. I think this is an overcomplification (TM).

  • avatar
    no cvt

    That truck would need a grill at least twice that size to be sold these days.

    Wish you could buy a GM truck that looked like that now.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The ’99 Silverado is a much better looking truck than the current version. Bonus, a step ladder is not needed to check the oil.

    • 0 avatar
      redapple

      Gardiner>
      Spot on. Thank you. Pig up truck size is a joke now. Clownish.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Gardiner, you are correct but probably are getting some of those truck guys’ panties all bunched up for not embracing the need to have a typical model with a tow rating of 10,000 lbs when all you have to tow is nothing. I remember loading bales of straw into the beds of pickups in the mid 80s…I’d hate to have the same task with today’s truck height.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The EV1 was never intended to be anything more than an evaluation project – an experiment, and the technology then was pretty primitive compared to today’s BEVs (okay, except for the inductive “paddle” chargers). I remember all the hand-wringing and conspiracy theories when GM recalled the *leased* EV1s – I couldn’t believe all the hysteria. I don’t imagine the EV2 would’ve been much different – only bigger and heavier.

    Also keep in mind that gas prices in 1999 were very low – I was paying 70 to 75 cents a gallon for 87 octane regular in the summer and fall of ’99. These things wouldn’t have exactly flown off the lots.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “I was paying 70 to 75 cents a gallon for 87 octane regular in the summer and fall of ’99”

      I as well, thank you 1997 ASEAN financial crisis.

      Oh and on that subject FWIW:

      “The foreign ministers of the 10 ASEAN countries believed that the well co-ordinated manipulation of their currencies was a deliberate attempt to destabilize the ASEAN economies. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad accused George Soros of ruining Malaysia’s economy with “massive currency speculation”. Soros claims to have been a buyer of the ringgit during its fall, having sold it short in 1997.”

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I’d say GM has done some brilliant engineering for hybrids/EVs. However; they end up the usual GM “a swing and miss”. For all of the gnashing of teeth and rendering of garment done around here; hybrids/EVs make perfectly acceptable commuter beasties. I know they won’t appeal to the B&B who drive 800 miles a day crossing the continental divide twice while hauling a 10,000 lb trailer. Back to things GM started on but gave (or should give up) on. Hybrids/EVs: Toyota and Ford would like say hello. Stellantis says they bought some of those fancy light bulbs. Chevy had fuel inject before Herr Bosch. When it ran, it was great. The caveat being when it ran. Rear-engine, air-cooled vehicles. This introduces another GM bad habit; get it right and stop making them. Can you imagine a flat six twin-turbocharged modern Corvair? A buddy of mine had a sweet Corvair convertible as a weekend toy. He says everyplace metal meets metal it leaks like sieve. So much for GM making great engines. Then he smiles, my Chevelle is two years younger and so much better in many way.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      Corvair engines don’t have to leak – I know plenty of owners in our local club that have Corvairs that don’t leak. If they’re properly rebuilt using modern gaskets and sealants, and Viton o-rings for the pushrod tubes, oil cooler, etc., they don’t leak. Cork gaskets and neoprene o-rings and seals were the norm in the ’60s, so lots of cars leaked, especially at the valve covers, and front and rear seals.

      Viton o-rings have been around for close to 40 years, and Corvair vendors like Clark’s offer composite gaskets for stuff like the oil pan; also, modern RTV sealants have vastly improved sealing at joints like the crankcase halves. There’s even a new high-quality heavy-gauge repro of the stamped steel OEM-style oil pan (I’ve seen one of them) so there’s no need to beat and try to straighten old bent and dented pans, or try to find a cast aluminum pan like one of the Otto Parts pans.

  • avatar
    Dan

    The idea that GMT 800 + 90s battery packs = viable product is prima facie absurd. The 1200 pound pack they used in the EV1 at the time held ~25 kWh which was only just this side of marginal for a Miata sized two seater with every possible concession to low rolling resistance. In a Silverado you’d have wanted six of them, even the HD frame would have been payload limited to around three, and you’re now good for 60 or 80 miles in a world without public chargers.

    Those packs also cost $10,000 a piece at a time that an entire Silverado sold for around 20.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    They were on a smaller scale, but the Chevy EV S10 and EV Ranger accomplished the same in the late ’90s. They were fine or impressive for they day, and were compliance vehicles for CARB rules, until the rules were relaxed. Then they were terminated. Some avoided the crusher and survive today.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    Gm has a long and (un)distinguished history of almost getting something right and then abandoning it. To this day, I’d love to have had a Gen 2 Corvair Monza turbo. It’s still a beautiful design and has excellent engineering. I really wish the suits at GM during those past years had suffered very bad ends and had been replaced with folks with some talent for business.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    @Jo,

    A) What was the cost of a 26.4 kWh NiMH battery pack in 1999? Here are some estimates of the total vehicle cost (battery was a significant portion):

    “One industry official said that each EV1 cost the company about US$80,000, including research, development and other associated costs;[81] other estimates placed the vehicle’s actual cost as high as $100,000.[6] Bob Lutz, GM Vice Chairman responsible for the Chevrolet Volt, in November 2011 stated the EV1 cost $250,000 each and leased for just $300 per month.[82]”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_EV1

    Take that cost estimate and multiply by 1.7, because you have spec’d out a significantly larger battery. How quickly do your proposed economies of scale kick in? (The NiMH battery was only introduced in 1999.)

    B) How does the rolling resistance of a 1999 GMT800 compare to a 1999 EV1? What are the respective drag coefficients?

    C) Are we building this as a K1500 or a K2500? What is the payload rating of the vehicle we started with, and what payload do we end up with? Same for towing capacity. What is the electric-only range when fully loaded? And when max towing?

    You have created a failed business case *and* a market dud. When TTAC begins in 2002, they are going to write super-harsh reviews of your ‘electric pickup’ – and they are going to be dead right.

    [GM has done some stupid things in the past. Not building this was not one of them.]

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      They’re supposed to lease (then crush) at a tremendous loss. The point given, an EV Silverado would’ve used an existing vehicle that’s also the 2nd most profitable in the world. That’s in sharp contrast to the EV1.

      Incidentally the battery pack on the EV S10 weighed about 2K lbs. So a dually EV Silverado would’ve made the most sense in ’99, until it didn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      There are a couple of reasons why the EV1 cost so much per vehicle that wouldn’t have applied to a EV Silverado.

      They only made 1100 so no where near enough to amortize the development cost.

      Since it was a purpose built vehicle the body and all the light weight components meant that was a large part of that development cost.

      The EVrado could have sold in much higher volumes maybe 10x as much in a 10 year run. And EVrado could have used much of the same pieces as the gas truck.

      So cut the development cost in half and sell 10x as many since it was a useful useable vehicle rather than a commuter pod that very few people had an interest in past the 80’s.

  • avatar
    JimC31

    I do recall when I had this illusion that this might have made sense at the time.

    I figured the biggest mobile machines in existence are electric drive, and big machines sometimes actually carry around excess weight on purpose(like say farm tractors,) that EVs should ‘trickle down’ from there. That’s of course completely wrong, you had to start as small and light and aerodynamic as possible. Tesla’s EV semi has laughable range for its job. This? In 1999? Not a bloody chance.

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