Remember When, Chattanooga? Electric cars were even hot 50 years ago

Photo courtesy of EPB archives. In 1968, the Westinghouse Co. built 50 little electric cars called the Markette. One is shown here on display in Chattanooga.
Photo courtesy of EPB archives. In 1968, the Westinghouse Co. built 50 little electric cars called the Markette. One is shown here on display in Chattanooga.

While Chattanooga is becoming known worldwide for the production of electric vehicles, namely the new Volkswagen ID.4 SUV, electric cars have been a hot topic here for decades.

The accompanying photo from the archives at EPB shows a small electric car from Westinghouse that was little more than a golf cart topped with a body shaped like a school bus.

According to an April 8, 1970, report in the Chattanooga News-Free Press displaying the photo, the man in the photo was William Campbell, EPB chief engineer. The vehicle was called a Markette, the caption said.

"With intense public concern and blaring headlines about ecology, pollution and mounting indisposable waste piles, much interest and research is being devoted toward solutions to these problems," the newspaper reported. "Clean flameless electricity is seen as a primary source of solution to many of these threats, particularly in the area of automobile transportation."

EPB had a display of the Markette at the Expo '70 Home Show at Memorial Auditorium, the News-Free Press reported. The company was also giving away seven electrical prizes during the Home Show, including "an RCA color TV, a Martin electric fireplace heater, electric fondue, electric hairsetter, electric warming tray, electric blender, and an electric dental hygiene unit."

It was about this time that the Westinghouse Co. announced it would open a plant to build the Markette near Atlanta. There are no follow-up reports in local newspapers to confirm that plant was ever operational.

The photo is part of a collection of vintage Chattanooga images curated by history buff Sam Hall and showcased at the website ChattanoogaHistory.com.

News reports of the day recall that there were flickers of interest among some of America's biggest companies to build a fleet of small electric commuter cars in the late 1960s, but there was little political will to subsidize such an effort at the federal level.

Ford Motor Co. applied for a patent for an electric car called the Comuta in 1969, and there was conjecture that America's electric car future was right around the corner.

Conservative columnist James Kilpatrick wrote in a 1967 column published in the News-Free Press that electric commuter cars would soon be perfected and widely available.

"Such a car would travel 150 to 200 miles without recharging; it would reach speeds of 50 miles an hour or more; it would be safe and inexpensive. Best of all, it would be both smog-free and silent. By 1980 it might again be possible, in our great cities, on a clear day to see forever."

Or maybe at least clear enough to see seven states from Rock City.

According to the News-Free Press, the Markette had a range of 50 miles and topped out at 25 miles per hour.

Kilpatrick's vision of an electric car future certainly has been realized in Chattanooga, albeit four decades late. Just this week the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported the city "is sitting amid more than $30 billion of announced new or planned investments in electric vehicles by auto companies and battery makers in Tennessee and Georgia alone." VW plans to make about 90,000 ID.4 SUVs at its assembly plant here next year.

As for the "car" in the photo, the Markette was built at a former Marketeer golf cart plant in Redlands, California, which was purchased by the Westinghouse Co. in the 1960s to mass produce the little car. According to the company, "Westinghouse built 50 of these vehicles to be used by the public in heavily congested urban areas. ... (They) sold for just under $2,000 each."

For about the same amount of money, American consumers could buy fuel-efficient Volkswagen Beetles in 1968, and indeed more than 400,000 Beetles were sold in the U.S. that year.

An example of the Markette is still on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Follow the "Remember When, Chattanooga?" public group on Facebook and see previous reports in this series at ChattanogaHistory.com.


ChattanoogaHistory.com

Launched by history enthusiast Sam Hall in 2014, ChattanoogaHistory.com is maintained to present historical images in the highest resolution available. If you have photo negatives, glass plate negatives or original nondigital prints taken in the Chattanooga area, contact Sam Hall for information on how they may qualify to be digitized and preserved at no charge.

"Remember When, Chattanooga?" publishes on Saturdays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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