Bob Beaumont, who created early mass-produced electric cars in 1970s, dies at 79

October 30, 2011

Bob Beaumont, 79, a car dealer who set out to become the Henry Ford of electric cars and sold more than 2,000 of them in a short-lived but visionary venture in the 1970s, died Oct. 24 at his home in Columbia.

He had emphysema, said his daughter, Dina Beaumont.

Mr. Beaumont was running a Chrysler dealership in Upstate New York in the late 1960s when, as he told it, he had an epiphany at the filling station. Pollution from gasoline was destroying American cities. There had to be a better way to run a car.

He sold his dealership and, after joining an unsuccessful effort in Detroit to convert gasoline-powered cars into electric vehicles, he moved to Sebring, Fla., where he obtained manufacturing space from an early investor. There he began building what was reported to be the first mass-produced electric vehicle, called CitiCar.

“Picture a golf cart in your head,” Mr. Beaumont told the Baltimore City Paper in 2008, describing his boxy creation. “Increase the size of the motor, add a couple more batteries, equip it with all the lights and things you need, and let that car serve millions of people to go back and forth to work.”

An overnight charge gave the car a range of about 40 miles. To keep weight down, the car had no air-conditioning. And although its top speed was under 40 mph, the two-seater came with optional racing stripes.

That was because Mr. Beaumont “understood the love affair that Americans have with their car,” said Bob Stone, his assistant for marketing at the company, called Sebring Vanguard. “As tiny and funny looking as the car was, he . . . wanted to embellish the car with things that would give people something to be affectionate about.”

The fuel crisis of the early 1970s helped make the CitiCar seem an attractive option, From early 1974 to late 1977 about 2,150 CitiCars were sold at about $3,000 each.

The operation fell apart in 1975, when Consumer Reports “pulled the plug” — as Mr. Beaumont once put it — with a review citing poor acceleration, steering and braking. It called the vehicle “foolhardy to drive.”

Mr. Beaumont vigorously defended his car. To show its sturdiness, he once took a baseball bat to it. He noted that it was for short commutes and errands, and that it should not be compared with conventional vehicles. But the oil crisis ended, sales plummeted, and in 1977, the company went bankrupt.

In the meantime, Mr. Beaumont began lobbying for federal funding for electric car research and moved to the Washington area. He opened a used-car dealership in Columbia, but he never gave up on the idea of an electric vehicle.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Beaumont returned to Florida, where he developed the Tropica, an electric car targeted to warm climates. Actor Don Johnson bought one of the sleek vehicles and used it in his “Nash Bridges” TV series, but the operation failed to thrive.

Mr. Beaumont retired about 1997 and lived to see the concept become popular again in such incarnations as the Chevy Volt.

“I was so positive and still am,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “You could move millions of people this way with no pollution. . . . Why they don’t do it, I don’t understand.”

Robert Gerald Beaumont was born April 1, 1932, in Teaneck, N.J. He served stateside in the Air Force for two years before taking business courses at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Loretta Mazzacone Beaumont of Columbia; five children, Marc Beaumont of Greensboro, N.C., Robert Beaumont Jr. and Steven Beaumont, both of Orlando, and Dina Beaumont and Matthew Beaumont, both of Columbia; and 11 grandchildren.

In 1992, Mr. Beaumont told Automotive News that hundreds of CitiCars remained on the road.

“We’ve had more CitiCar sightings than Elvis,” he said.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.