Zagato Was the Italian Answer to Electric Urban Mobility, But Twenty Years Ago

Zagato ElCar 12 photos
Photo: Federico Anversa/Collectingcars
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As one of the leading coachbuilders in the world, Zagato was responsible for creating stunning works of art on wheels, but the design studio also came up with this: the Zele, or the ElCar, as it was known in the U.S.
The beginning of the '70s brought the first oil crisis, the CAFE rules, and the increased insurance prices. All of the above led to the Malaise Era of the American automotive industry. In Europe, on the other hand, carmakers already produced small-displacement engines. Take, for instance, the Fiat 500 and 600. Combined, both engines of these cars were a pint and a half. True, they were sipping gas with a teaspoon. But, on the other hand, they provided no comfort, no performance, and were safe enough only to protect their occupants from bird droppings.

In those times, Zagato Design Studio, known for its work with Aston Martin, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo, imagined a tiny vehicle: the Zele. When they exported the car to the U.S., they changed its name to ElCar. No, it was not something fancy name stating it was "The Car," it was an abridged version of "Electric Car."

What you see here it's not a phonebooth on wheels with a pair of headlights. Instead, it's actually an electric vehicle designed and built by Zagato in its factory. The ElCar even sports the brand's badge on the bodywork.

Zagato Zele/ElCar
Photo: Federico Anversa/Collectingcars
To produce it, the manufacturer took the platform of a Fiat 500 and stripped it to the chassis. Afterward, it installed a new, taller, fiberglass bodywork. Thus, the design team solved the problem with the interior room, which was previously large enough only for Yoda, a lightsaber, and a ten-pound dog. Moreover, they removed the back seats and used that area for the electric motor and the onboard charger. As for the trunk, well, there was none. Actually, the rear end didn't open at all. Finally, the whole construction stood on four 10" steel wheels.

This cube-looking vehicle had only straight surfaces with a sloped front area for the windshield. To cut costs, it took some parts from Fiat production vehicles, such as the headlights, the taillights, and the door mirror. However, since Zagato designed the bodywork, it couldn't leave the flat panels just... plain. So instead, the design team created a pair of sculptured lines that ran from the sloped front area to the sides, onto the doors, and the rear quarter panels. There, it made a 90-degree upwards turn and met again on the car's roof.

At first sight, it was a vehicle that nobody would buy, and it would embarrass the manufacturer. And yet, Zagato sold 500 of them between 1974 and 1976. It was not a cheap car by those time's standards. But, on the other hand, electricity was dirt cheap. Actually, running this vehicle to work and back costs less than using public transportation for two people. Because that's how many occupants could fit inside the cabin.

In terms of features and amenities, the list was limited to just a few: sliding windows, locks on the doors, a speedometer, a few switches on the dash panel, turn signals, and a wiper. Heating was provided by warm clothes.

Zagato Zele/ElCar
Photo: Federico Anversa/Collectingcars
The motor was produced by Marelli and offered a mere 1,000 Watts (0.15 hp) of power. That's less than many vacuum cleaners, but it provided more torque. The ElCar could go up to 25 mph (40 kph). It had two pedals and some sort of a three-speed gearbox. For reversing, there was an additional switch on the dashboard.

Some say that there were some variations of that motor, and that the Zagato provided some vehicles with a 2,000 Watts motor that could reach 30 mph (48 kph). The energy came from four regular batteries installed under the floor in a slide-out cradle. They provided enough juice for up to 50 miles (80 km) before a recharge was needed. The ElCar could perform that thanks to its low weight of just about 1,100 lbs (600 kg), including the batteries.

It's hard to say how long it took the owners to recharge those lead-acid batteries, but we can guesstimate it was about 8 to 12 hours. And yet, 500 people didn't mind doing that daily, or once every other day.

Zagato Zele/ElCar
Photo: Federico Anversa/Collectingcars

Regardless of the unusual car's look, the ElCar was a solution for those times. A solution that came from a creative design studio, which made the small electric city car decades before Mercedes-Benz offered an electric version for the smart. But this little vehicle is today more than a transportation device. It is also a piece of Zagato history, so if you're one of its fans, you might find one of these for less than a Mitsubishi Mirage money. We're not sure if they will get pricier, but there are slim chances of getting banned from public roads due to pollution regulations.

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About the author: Tudor Serban
Tudor Serban profile photo

Tudor started his automotive career in 1996, writing for a magazine while working on his journalism degree. From Pikes Peaks to the Moroccan desert to the Laguna Seca, he's seen and done it all.
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