BMW's recent expansion into the electric vehicle market has proven a resounding success, with over 10% of all BMWs sold now electrically powered. However, BMW's work with EVs did not begin with the i3 and i8, as this 1972 '1602e' proves.
The i3's brilliance has been no coincidence as it is far from BMW's first effort, even if it was the first to be truly mass-produced. One of BMW's earliest forays into EVs, the 1602e, began development in 1969.
That BMW chose to explore electrical propulsion at a time when fuel was so cheap, but with the fuel crisis of the '70s just about to hit, proved especially prophetic.
Despite the opportune timing however, BMW never intended to put the 1602e into production, but it served as a study of what was possible and what could be possible - with the i3 clearly the eventual conclusion to the thought.
In truth, the 1602e did not have the technology to seriously challenge hydrocarbon powered cars. The car stored its power in 12 standard issue 12V car batteries, which were mounted on a shipping pallet and dropped into the engine bay. These lead-acid batteries gave the car just 19 miles of range, when used continuously at 30mph, or 37 miles when kept to very low speeds.
So too, the car's performance was lacklustre, paling in comparison to its contemporaries and indeed modern EVs. A 43bhp electric motor was mounted where the 02s gearbox would usually reside and provided a top speed of just 62mph, and a glacial 0-30mph time of 8.0 seconds. In comparison, a petrolium powered 1602 would make it to 30mph in just 3.5 seconds.
Just as today, the battery technology of the day held the car back. The 02 wasn't the lightest car ever, although light by modern standards, but the battery pack added a colossal 350kg - not too far off the weight of an original Fiat 500.
Despite their limitations, the cars were used at the Munich Olympics, transporting organisers as well as being used as camera cars for long-distance events. Just two 1602es were originally produced.
Furthermore, the experiment was successful enough to start a series of electrical vehicle development. The BMW LS Electric came in 1975, followed by an E30 based EV in 1987. The BMW E1 of 1991 saw BMW build an EV from scratch for the first time, setting the path for the i3 with a lightweight and aerodynamic body designed to extend range.
The E36 EV then tested more of the component technologies, also participating in a multi-manufacturer electric vehicle trial on the island of Rugen. Finally, the MiniE and BMW ActiveE tested technology and components that would eventually find their place in the i3 and i8.
When the 1602e was revealed in 1972 many surely thought it was a waste of time, but just over 40 years later, BMW's experimentation is finally coming to fruition.