The story of the past is just that, a story we tell ourselves. And every so often, a discovery comes along that just blows apart our entire understanding of how things came to be. We knew prehistoric humans were too primitive to make abstract art, until a villager in Spain stumbled onto the Cave of Altamira in 1868 and found beautiful paintings some 40,000 years old. And we knew modern electric cars emerged in the late 1990s, led by the pioneering GM EV1—until we found a top-secret electric Chevy Corvette prototype, built by Motorola and predating the EV1, sitting at a salvage yard in Illinois last summer. 

Gazing at the plastic and fiberglass lines of the dusty electro-Vette for the first time, I could feel the energy in the room. Here it was, an unknown piece of EV history just sitting in a random warehouse, unexplained and accompanied by documents that weren’t ever supposed to leave Motorola’s offices. This was no hobby project—the electric conversion was professionally done in the early 1990s with bespoke Motorola parts, elegantly preserving the C4 Corvette’s stock appearance, a far cry from the average homebrew EV projects of the era. The documents indicated power outputs on par with contemporary supercars; other bits of tech were so far ahead of their time, they wouldn’t appear in production electric cars again for decades. 

Kevin Williams

[Editor’s note: This is Part I of a three-part series laying out the never-before-told story of Motorola’s amazing electric Corvette project. Part II will be published on Wednesday with Part III dropping on Thursday. You’re gonna want to come back for those.]

Just looking at the damn thing, it was obviously a passion project made by brilliant people who genuinely loved cars. And yet no record of the Motorola Corvette exists anywhere online. It was a ghost—until now.

Through extensive reporting, I’ve pieced together the real story of what’s quite possibly the most impressive electric car project to never be seen by the public. In this three-part series, we’ll explain how Motorola’s electric Corvette came to be, why it was built, and why the project was nearly swept into the dustbin of history. It’s a noble, inspiring, and also tragic story that unlocks a key transitional moment in time for EVs and gives a glimpse at what could have been.

Just know this: The modern electric sports car revolution didn’t start with Tesla or GM. It started in Arizona, with some crazy engineers seeking to break EV speed records without any bigwig executives finding out. 

via Chris Pratt

Humble Beginnings with a “Glorified Golf Cart”

The electric Corvette’s story begins sometime in the 1970s with Sanjar Ghaem, a curious electrical engineer in Illinois annoyed at the high prices and rationing prompted by the decade’s fuel crisis. He and another engineering friend had an idea. Why not buy a cheap small car and convert it to electric power? Would that work?

The two bought a used Renault economy car, ripped out the engine and fuel system, replacing them with batteries and an airplane generator they got from a surplus store for $90. “It was a glorified golf cart with maybe 25 or 30 horsepower,” Ghaem told me over the phone. Ghaem did the engineering work, rigging up a motor controller that he described as basic but robust. A colleague and friend did the mechanical work, like ripping out the engine and fabricating all the equipment needed to hold the new electric powertrain in place.

The electrified Renault was fine; Ghaem said it served for years as a basic grocery store runabout in the Chicagoland area. It certainly wasn’t fast, nor could it go all that far, owing to the motor controller and battery technology standards of the time. But what if it could? Ghaem couldn’t stop thinking about it, even as his career progressed and he landed at Motorola a few years later, which at that point was one of the top technology companies in the world. Ghaem eventually rose to be the director of technology for the automotive division, which set the stage for everything that followed.

This was the 1980s, when cars were becoming more computerized as they moved away from tricky carburetors and points system injections to complicated engine management systems with microprocessors and semiconductors. Ghaem saw the engine management technology Motorola Automotive was working on and thought it would be wise for the company to start thinking about supporting more electric powertrains. To Ghaem, this could future-proof Motorola’s business, but he knew upper management would need convincing—and that he wouldn’t be able to do it alone.

So, Ghaem got with a fellow auto enthusiast and Motorola colleague named Ken Gerbetz. Gerbetz agreed with Ghaem, electrified powertrains were the future, and possibly a very profitable future for the company at that. “It would be nice if we could motivate folks at upper management to somehow work in this area,” Ghaem recalled telling Gerbetz. The two pondered it for years as they handled their day jobs—Ghaem focused on pursuing patents and developing IP for Motorola, Gerbetz thinking about products from a market perspective—but neither of them knew how exactly to get Motorola execs to support their vision. As it turns out, the stars were aligning to make that happen.

By then it was 1992, and Gerbetz and Ghaem had the idea to create a demonstration model of Motorola’s automotive technology. It would be a showcase of sorts to show off to Motorola’s current and potential customers. And it had to be something crazy, like a full hybrid muscle car. “We were producing an engine controller for Orbital at the time,” Gerbetz said, referring to an Australian company that developed a low-emission two-stroke engine. “And we were thinking of developing a hybrid powertrain using that engine.”

It was this talk of a tech showcase that led straight to our mystery Corvette—but not immediately, as the two engineers first thought about how to maximize exposure for their ideas and put Motorola’s efforts in the spotlight.

Going Racing

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. While Ghaem and Gerbetz sought the right opportunity to pitch their idea to executives, Gerbetz caught wind of a crew in Arizona who needed help building an electric race car for a new competition put on by the state’s major utility company, called the Solar and Electric 500 race. 

This crew was no ordinary duo. One was Don Karner, a high-level engineer at Arizona Public Service and an early electric racing enthusiast who built and ran a number of projects through the 1980s. The other was Tom Brawner, the cousin of the famous Indianapolis 500 mechanic (and designer of the Brawner Hawk) Clint Brawner who had already successfully converted a Midget race car to electric power, dubbed the EX-10. 

Gerbetz and Ghaem mulled it over and said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” Gerbetz told me he had people contacting him all the time with ideas, but Karner and Brawner seemed like they were worth their salt. The timing was tight and cash was short—this was all done in the engineers’ spare time, without Motorola’s direct knowledge or approval—but the public race seemed like the right kind of stage for the publicity they wanted. So Gerbetz and Ghaem pulled their meager resources away from the muscle car project and plowed them into the new race car, called the EX-11. The name continues on from Brawner’s EX-10, but also was a reference to the charging plug on the back of the car.

Formed in 1990, the Solar and Electric 500 was a race of budding EV creations made by high schools, colleges, and other EV enthusiast teams. It was one of the first of its kind, made possible by Arizona Public Service gifting some funds and an electric motor or two to teams. It was held at Phoenix International Raceway and featured a few actual Indy 500 drivers among the competitors.

Competing in this race would no doubt give Motorola’s tech credibility internally and externally—if they did well, that is—allowing Gerbetz and Ghaem to go forward with their initial idea of converting a muscle car to a hybrid as a tech showcase. The two needed real money to get that project going, money that wouldn’t come without the nod from upper management. 

Within the limited budget and tight-lipped development of the EX-11 (and later EX-12 and EV Corvette projects), Ghaem credits Ken Gerbetz with a lot of hustle in getting things built in the first place. The two had developed a great working relationship; Gerbetz would get the funding, but Ghaem would get the engineers, one whom ended up being Ken’s brother Bob. As luck would have it, Bob was also an engineer with knack for designing and building electric motor systems, and the group didn’t have a motor and motor controller guy at the time. Enter Bob—who said he enjoyed working on the EX-11 so much that he decided to join Motorola full-time, which is how he ended up working on the Corvette.

Both Gerbetz brothers and Ghaem said the EX-11 was built very quickly, in just a few months. The project used a shortened Lola IndyCar open-wheel chassis altered to accept quick-swappable batteries, which were supplied by Exide. A motor controller was made by the engineer and former head of Soleq Corporation Shunjiro Ohba. Ohba’s shop would go on to serve as a space for the team to test and verify the power output of later EV motor projects, including the Corvette.

The EX-11 with updated livery in 2016. Barrett-Jackson

The actual motor for the EX-11 was made by GE and supplied as part of the initial Solar And Electric 500 challenge. Still, that didn’t stop the team from working their magic; Bob Gerbetz heavily modified GE’s motor, making it produce 75 horsepower constant, or 135 horsepower peak, on a chassis dyno. Together with even more alterations to Brawner and Karner’s design, the end result was an open-wheel EV that weighed a relatively featherweight 2,100 lbs. 

Now, it was time for the EX-11 to race. The team had thrown together an electric race car, built on weekends with no budget, in secret from away from their day jobs and the bigwigs at Motorola. The project ran on the passion and drive of smart people invested in the future. Ken Gerbetz had even found a way to get a real racer behind the wheel, Formula Atlantic driver Billy Roe. It was all coming together.

Beating Toyota and GM at Their Own Game

Held from March 5-7, the 1993 Arizona Public Service Solar and Electric 500 competition included more than a few high schoolers or college student teams in converted Geo Metros, or enclosed recumbent bikes with solar cells on top. But this time, Motorola wasn’t the only big company represented, as Toyota and GM also showed up with their own projects. Toyota brought an experimental electric race car, while GM brought its own working prototypes: a couple of electric Saturn SC1s and the famous Impact concept car, which eventually became the EV1.

A good cross-section of the varied Solar and Electric 500 entries.

“I remember when I first arrived at [the track] and was walking in the grandstand area on the walkway next to the fence, and the Toyota drove by,” Bob Gerbetz said. Toyota’s prototype was running at speeds of 78 mph, which no doubt looked lightning fast when you’re so close to the action.  “My brother and I looked at each other, laughed and said, ‘we’re screwed,’” he continued.

But amazingly, on track their EX-11 consistently held lap speeds of 93 mph, beating the Toyota’s comparatively pokey 78 mph. It even crested 100 mph, setting a world record for the fastest EV driven on a closed course.

Driver Billy Roe posing with the EX-11 after his record run.

“On the first lap of the race, the EX-11 lost power. And it seemed like forever when it was coasting into the pits. We were thinking, what did we screw up? It turned out that Exide ran out of 600 amp fuses, so they put a 400 amp fuse in the first battery pack we ran with. Our controller was set up for 600 amps. Don Karner knew what happened right away,” Bob Gerbetz said. It took 15 seconds to change the batteries, a process that involved popping open the side pods, having “two very large guys” haul out the heavy packs, roll the car forward a bit, and pop in the new ones.

“So after coasting to the pits and after the battery change we were about 2 laps down. But once the car got rolling again, the EX-11 was rapidly catching up to the leaders and eventually passed everyone including Toyota, and won the race.” 

According to Bob, Toyota wasn’t upset by the loss at all. In fact, he said the brand was impressed. “I always think highly of Toyota because they showed up with a race car for this event. And they were impressed with our performance and later offered us about $5 million a year to go EV racing for them, but of course, the management at Motorola said no way because Toyota wanted all the technology in return,” Bob said.

Regarding GM, Bob remembers the announcers of the Solar and Electric 500 making a big deal of the Impact’s presence. “GM made a big announcement over the PA system about how they were going to set the new world’s closed course speed record with their Impact after we just set the record,” he said, adding that the GM team even turned the headlights on and off, just to emphasize how much of a “real car” the Impact was, compared to the converted Indy car that was the EX-11.

The 1990 GM Impact Experimental EV concept.

It didn’t beat Motorola, though. In fact, Bob said the Impact almost wrecked between turns 1 and 2, barely cresting 93 mph. The concept shuffled off, with GM clearly embarrassed about falling short to a couple of Motorola engineers working in their spare time. (Though perhaps in part motivated by its failure, GM went out in 1994 and used the Impact to set a new land-speed record for EVs with a 183-mph straight-line blast.)

The Stage Is Set for the Electric Corvette

Winning the Solar and Electric 500 gave Ghaem and Gerbetz credibility; they had helped build a winning vehicle from scratch with donated parts, screwed together after hours and on weekends. So when upper-level management heard about their victory, it caught the eye of Motorola Vice President Fred Tucker. 

“We propose that we convert a muscle car, not one of these little dinky 30 horsepower jobs,” Ghaem recalled telling Tucker. Ghaem said Tucker was also an automotive enthusiast who owned Ferraris and Corvettes, which certainly didn’t hurt. Tucker was interested enough that he gave Ghaem’s team $25,000—that’s a little over $50,000 today—for the electric car project. Simultaneously, the budget was granted to build a follow-up EV race car that would be called the EX-12.

It was now time to build the cars, and maybe try and change the world.

The Electric Corvette in 1993.

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow. Got a tip about another long-lost prototype? Get in touch here:

The post The Incredible Story of Motorola’s Top Secret Electric Corvette Prototype From 1993: Part I appeared first on The Drive.

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