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Charging process

Back to the future.

Back to the future.

The roots of electric mobility at Volkswagen.

The roots of electric mobility at Volkswagen.

Today, electric cars and roadside charging stations are a common sight. However, not many people know too much about the roots of this ground-breaking technology. So we decided to talk to Dr Adolf Kalberlah, whose pioneering research helped launch electric vehicles onto our roads 50 years ago.

Portraits of Dr. Adolf Kalberlah
ADOLF KALBERLAH

Electro-chemist and specialist in the field of battery research

  • Equipped the T2 Camper with an electric battery.
  • Developed the first Golf with an electric drive.
  • Launched the Golf I City STROMer as a short-run production series in the 1980s.

Back in 1970, when Volkswagen first set up its Centre for Future Research, Kalberlah’s job was to work in a small team to develop a ‘powertrain for the future’. As an electro-chemist with a speciality in battery research, Kalberlah was ideally placed to help advance electric cars. He and his ten-man team’s research soon started getting results, and it wasn’t long before they had developed a battery system. From here it took just two years before the electrically driven T2 Camper was brought to the road. 

This does all beg the question – why were Volkswagen working on electric vehicles as early as 1970? The answer is that back then it was assumed that oil would be completely used up by the 1990s. Other measures to prepare for this eventuality were already in place in West Germany at the time, including ‘Car-free Sundays’.

As we now know, predictions of a total oil outage were wide of the mark. Nevertheless, the T2 Camper still became a much loved city car. With one charge, drivers could travel for around 70 kilometres. Charging was simple too. All the driver needed was a charging cable and a standard 220-volt socket and they were good to go. It was a revolutionary achievement. But as with most technology in its infancy, there was a drawback. The green motor weighed almost a tonne, meaning that maintaining the battery was a real challenge. The team’s solution was a piece of quick-change technology that enabled a flat battery to be swiftly replaced by a new one.

Profile of the T2 Camper

T2 Camper with an electric drive

Top speed: 70 km/h

Range: approx. 70 kilometres

Battery weight from lead accumulators: 850 kilos

Charging time: ten hours

Kerb weight of the electric T2 Transporter (1972): 2.2 tonnes

Battery weight for the electric Transporter: 850 kg
 (heavier than the Beetle at the time)

With battery: over 3 tonnes


A sensation: the first VW Camper with an electric drive.

Kalberlah and the team’s work wasn’t done there. After the T2 Camper, a long process of testing and tinkering began. In 1976 the T2 was followed by Volkswagen’s first ever electric Golf. Later that year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched a competition to find the ‘Taxi of the Future’. Kalberlah won with his CityTaxi – a modified T2 Transporter with a hybrid drive – and shot to fame almost overnight. Upon returning to Germany he found he’d achieved legendary status and even drove his electric camper into the studio of Die Aktuelle Schaubude, a popular German TV show. 

“We were proud of our electric Transporter. It seemed to be the perfect alternative for short-distance driving: in municipal fleets, as service vehicles, or for local delivery services.”

Kalberlah with photo album
Mr e-Mobility has fond memories of the electric Camper.

Big ideas on a smaller scale.

The Golf I City-STROMer soon followed in 1981 on short-run production, however the car was only designed as a test. Kalberlah himself used an electric Golf on an almost daily basis. And whether it’s the time he ran out of battery in a hybrid drive or when he got into a bit of trouble over a missing emissions sticker on his number plate, he always recounts his experiences with a smile. 

Black and white shot of a parking lot for e-vehicles

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