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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Father of CitiCar - Electric Car Dies

Bob Beaumont, Who Popularized Electric Cars, Dies at 79

In the NY Times Today

Bob Beaumont, who thought every home should have an affordable electric vehicle in its driveway and sold more than 2,000 of them, the tiny, trapezoidal creation known as theCitiCar, decades before General Motors and Nissan came up with their own versions, died on Monday at his home in Columbia, Md. He was 79.

The cause was emphysema, said his daughter, Dina.

In the 1960s, Mr. Beaumont was so inspired by the battery-powered lunar rover and so appalled by the nation’s insatiable appetite for oil that he sold his Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in upstate New York to become a carmaker himself. Just as the Arab oil embargo was ending in 1974, the CitiCar — eight feet long, 1,100 pounds and shaped like a cheese wedge on a golf-cart chassis — began rolling out of a factory in Sebring, Fla.

The car, a two-seater with a price tag under $3,000 — about half the price of an average car at the time — was initially met with skepticism, particularly given its top speed of 26 miles an hour. Mr. Beaumont added two more batteries, allowing it to reach nearly 40 m.p.h., and sales took off.

“Everybody heard about what we were doing in Florida,” Mr. Beaumont told Baltimore City Paper in 2008, “and they came flocking to us like we were the salvation of the world.”

The company, which he called Sebring-Vanguard, soon became the sixth-largest carmaker in the United States, though well behind the Big Three, American Motors and Checker Motors. In three years, it sold 2,206 CitiCars (that’s the number Mr. Beaumont remembered, his daughter said, though other reports give figures slightly higher or lower).

But the CitiCar was dogged by questions about its roadworthiness, particularly after Consumer Reports declared it inordinately noisy, unreliable and generally “foolhardy to drive.” Mr. Beaumont successfully defended the car, whose body was encased in the same type of plastic as a football helmet, against bureaucrats in Michigan who wanted to ban it from public roads: he attacked it with a baseball bat, then suggested he test whether a Ford owned by one of the officials would withstand a similar test.

Still, in 1977, with the safety questions lingering and with oil cheap and plentiful again, Sebring-Vanguard went bankrupt. Another company bought the design and continued building a similar model, which it called the Comuta-Car, for several more years. About 4,400 of those cars and their derivatives, including a postal delivery Comuta-Van, were sold.

“He laid the pathway; he was just about 30 years too early,” said Peter Crisitello, who owns a 1977 CitiCar and organized a caravan of about a half-dozen of them to Mr. Beaumont’s home for a four-day gathering of enthusiasts in 2009.

After the CitiCar was discontinued, Mr. Beaumont moved to Maryland to run a used-car dealership and to lobby Congress to promote electric vehicles. In the 1990s he began a venture called Renaissance Cars and designed a battery-powered sports car, the Tropica, that was far more elaborate than the bare-bones CitiCar. For various reasons, it did not catch on; fewer than 25 were ever built.

Robert Gerald Beaumont was born on April 1, 1932, in Teaneck, N.J. After high school, he served for two years in the Air Force before studying business at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

He left college before earning his degree to work at the Chrysler dealership in Kingston, which he later bought and ran for about 20 years. Despite having a wife and five children to support, his daughter said, he believed in his vision strongly enough to sell the dealership.

“Financially it was a big gamble, but in his heart it wasn’t,” Dina Beaumont said. “Recently we realized how many of those CitiCars are still on the road today. They’re still running, and we’ve never heard of a fatality or any serious accident.”

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