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The pioneering electric car that hit the skids

Plug in baby. An orange Enfield 8000 seen in the streets of Syros. A workers' strike at the UK factory in the early 1970s prompted John Goulandris to switch production to the Greek island.

By Harry van Versendaal

Built for the urban motorist, this quirky vehicle is quiet, easy to drive and can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

It is the Enfield 8000, and it first rolled off the production line in 1973.

The name will ring very few bells these days, but not only did such a car hit the road some four decades before the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf, it actually did so with the help of Greek brains, hands and money.

Now a new documentary unravels the story behind the birth and premature death of an electric pioneer. “A Tale of Two Isles,” an informative, well-crafted and at times emotional film directed by Michalis Stavropoulos, a Greek automotive journalist, is showing at this year's Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF).

The story goes back to 1966 when the UK's Electricity Council launched a tender for a prototype electric car, a move that was, in part at least, prompted by growing energy concerns when the OPEC oil embargo led to a global fuel crisis. Underdog Enfield – a brand that used to make rifles, speedboats and hovercrafts, and which had just been acquired by Greek shipowner John Goulandris – eventually beat rival bids from Ford and British Leyland for the production of about 100 vehicles at its factory on the Isle of Wight.

Powered by eight heavy duty 12V lead acid batteries – four under the bonnet and another four in the boot – the Enfield 8000 could travel at a top speed of 77 kilometers per hour and had a range of around 64 km.

The vehicle was designed around a tubular chassis frame with panels made of lightweight aluminum. It featured an impressive aerodynamic drag coefficient – its designers brag it was found to actually be lower than the Porsche of that time – while the low center of gravity gave the car very good handling. Running costs were estimated at a quarter of the Mini, while maintenance costs were almost zero as there were no moving parts and no fuel. Designers relied extensively on commercially available parts and components to facilitate repairs and replacements around the globe.

On the down side, the bulky batteries took their toll as the Enfield 8000 weighed nearly a ton. And when the batteries ran out, they had to be charged for up to 10 hours.

It all went rather smoothly until a strike by sheet metal workers forced Goulandris to eventually shut down the Isle of Wight factory. A frustrated Goulandris soon made the controversial decision to move production to the Greek island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades and the country's one-time maritime and commercial hub, where his family had acquired control of the Neorion Shipyards. As was to be expected, not everyone agreed with the plan; and not everyone followed.

Production of the Enfield now took place inside a defunct textile factory next to the port. Machinery and equipment had to be shipped from the UK while engineers, hired from the island's shipyards, built the cars by hand. There was no assembly line, but six work stations where an equal number of vehicles were built from scratch all at the same time – no doubt a costly procedure. The fact that the car was designed in Britain, then made in Greece, then transported back to England where the batteries were installed, before being exported to the rest of the world made little financial sense either.

The hefty price tag – the Enfield 8000 cost almost twice the Mini – was certainly one of the things that killed the project. As the people behind the project tell the camera, the infamous Greek bureaucracy, politics and hostility from the oil industry – who were, after all, Goulandris's business partners – proved a minefield.

The last Enfield car rolled out of the Syros factory in early 1976. A total of 123 cars were assembled then shipped to the various electricity boards around the UK and all around the world from France and Russia to Africa and Australia. None was sold in Greece because of red tape.

For people who took part in that innovative project, such as versatile designer John Ackroyd, seeing electric cars finally charge into the mainstream so many years later spurs a mixture of sadness and vindication.

The Enfield 8000, Ackroyd says in the documentary, “gave the message that electric cars could work to the world; but the world didn't really catch on.”

[Kathimerini English Edition]

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“A Tale of Two Isles” will be screened at 3.30 p.m. on Thursday, March 20, and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 23, at the Tonia Marketaki theater. For more information about the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, go to tdf.filmfestival.gr.
 

ekathimerini.com , Wednesday March 19, 2014 (11:15)  
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