Aptly Named: Remembering the Pioneer, Circa 1960

The Pioneer was the first electric vehicle that the magazine which became Car and Driver ever reviewed. How does it stack up against the EVs of today?
Written by Alex Reale
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
Jul 12, 2022
With each passing day, we are introduced to yet another new electric vehicle. As we drive our very current VinFasts and
Rivians
, EV memory lane beckons—what was going on in the world of electric vehicles before five minutes ago? 
Jerry
, the
car ownership super app
, breaks down an EV concept from 1960, the Pioneer—a true piece of
car history
.

The Pioneer, reviewed

In its January 1960 issue, the automotive magazine Sports Cars Illustrated, soon to be rechristened Car and Driver, featured a review of something unusual. The car world of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was characterized by the heavy, the V8-powered, and the pre-muscle, but the magazine was willing to indulge an upstream swimmer: a car called Pioneer. 
The Pioneer was the brainchild of a company in Santa Ana, California called the Nic-L-Silver Battery Company, and the firm’s name was a dead giveaway: it was hard at work building a car that would be—gasp—powered by a battery. 
Though Nic-L-Silver Battery Company wasn’t the only firm working on an electric car at this time,
the Car and Driver review
calls it “the most promising to date,” in what we will soon see was a tragically incorrect assessment.

Pioneer specs

The Pioneer was promising to Sports Cars Illustrated for a few reasons. 
Thanks to its non-gas power source, it would apparently cost “under ⅓ cent per mile” to operate, a preposterously low rate to our modern eyes and a very familiar selling point for joining the world of EVs: few to no gas expenses. And it was well-built, sporting a fiberglass body, spacious individual bucket seats, and unobtrusively placed batteries.
Cheap to operate and good-looking, the Pioneer also impressed Sports Car Illustrated with its acceleration (despite a top speed of only 50 mph) and  driving style. And weighing in at 1800 pounds, it was half the size of the then-popular 1957 Ford Thunderbird—and twice as quiet. 
The reviewers commented on the “ghostly” nature of the Pioneer, noting that its tiptoeing engine drew inquisitive looks from fellow drivers, who were perhaps expecting a typical roar. Those of us who live here in the 21st century are getting accustomed to the spaceship whirring sound that so many new EVs sport, so we know that jarring feeling of mismatch all too well. 
So we know that the Pioneer was cute, fast, light, and quiet. But how far could it go, and did it even make it off the factory floor? 

Doomed to be ahead of its time

The Pioneer, which would cost just under $2000, offered 100 to 150 miles of range, as determined by the driver’s choices. When we consider that the first generation Tesla Roadster, built over 50 years later, offers 265 miles of range, this doesn’t seem too quaint for its time. (Of course, the Roadster’s top speed is 125 mph, so we can’t get too excited.) 
Nic-L-Silver promised eight hours of charging, or fewer, to get the Pioneer out and about. And the battery company also made it extra easy for its customers, noting that a typical 110-volt outlet would do the trick. So you could unplug the toaster and throw on the car for a couple hours. And then when your battery started to lose it, after approximately three years, you could replace it for $300.
Sadly, this Pioneer didn’t make it to its destination. Despite some fanfare at a Pomona fair in 1959, the lone Pioneer remained lone: it proved to be too expensive to build these cars at scale, says
Green Car Reports
So Nic-L-Silver’s great idea faded into history, and EV enthusiasts of the ‘60s took on the frustrating distinction of being ahead of their time. The Pioneer was indeed a pioneer.
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