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The Cold War

Science and innovation

Electric ideas: the 1974 NATO car show

While electric and hybrid vehicles are familiar to us today, in 1974 low-polluting cars were radical and innovative concepts. On 22 October of that year, a very unique car show took place at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, where the visitors’ parking lot was transformed into an outdoor exhibition of cutting-edge cars. 

At the car show, NATO Secretary General Joseph Luns – who stood more than two metres (6ft 7in) tall – was invited to fold himself into the GM ES-512 Electric for a test drive. This two-seater electric vehicle was not only a daring prototype, it was also tiny! Measuring just over 2.5 metres long and 1.4 metres wide, the compact wedge-shaped vehicle contained an 84-volt power battery pack that took seven hours to charge. The GM ES-512 could reach top speeds of 48km/h (30 mph) and travel 93km (58 miles) when cruising at 40km/h (25 mph).



Joining Secretary General Luns at the car show was Russell E. Train, an administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Train was originally appointed by President-elect Richard Nixon in late 1968 to chair the Task Force on Environment, where he played an instrumental role in persuading the Nixon administration to create the EPA. Nixon established the EPA by executive order in 1970, but the groundwork for the agency was laid with the adoption of the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969.

The passage of this landmark Act was concurrent with NATO’s 20th anniversary celebrations in Washington, D.C. on 10 April 1969, where President Nixon urged NATO to embrace a new social and environmental dimension to enhance its role as a positive global force. Nixon called for “the creation of a committee on the challenges of modern society… to explore ways in which the experience and resources of the Western nations could most effectively be marshalled toward improving the quality of life for our peoples.” The argument proved convincing, and the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society (CCMS) was established at NATO the same year, heralding a major step in broadening Allied cooperation.

A man pipetting non-petroleum fuel into one of the low-polluting display vehiclesA man pipetting non-petroleum fuel into one of the low-polluting display vehicles

One of the responsibilities of the CCMS was to supervise NATO's Environment and Society Programme. After the committee’s inaugural meeting in 1970, a pilot study on air pollution was launched by the United States. It aimed to define criteria for air quality and to predict future air quality trends to solve the problem of air pollution. The following year, the United States suggested that a Low Pollution Power Systems Development initiative be introduced as part of the study. This initiative later evolved into a separate pilot study called the Automotive Propulsion Systems/Low Pollution Power Systems Development (a very catchy title), in which several NATO Allies participated. It paved the way for the 1974 car show.

The experimental cars on display at the NATO car show never reached mass production, but the car show offered a forum for interaction, experimentation, dialogue, and eventually, progress. And maybe also a little fun! 




Did you know?

118 innovative pilot studies were initiated by the CCMS over 38 years (1970-2008). During this timeframe, around 300 annual and final reports were issued, of which 276 are available to the public in the NATO Archives Reading Room at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.