The Henney Kilowatt: Tesla Model 3’s long lost ancestor

1959 Henney Kilowatt ad

Collectors have a chance to own an important piece of EV history now that a 1960 Henney Kilowatt has come up for sale. Not only was the Kilowatt one of the few somewhat-practical electric cars produced in the mid 20th century, the project involved Victor Wouk, today considered the father of hybrid cars.

Wouk, the brother of noted writer Herman Wouk, was no backyard tinkerer. A veteran of the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, he had a PhD in electrical engineering from CalTech. By the early 1960s he'd started and sold two successful electronics companies and his interest turned to electric cars. He would later make a hybrid 1972 Buick Skylark that was a seminal development in the history of hybrid vehicles.

National Union Electric Company made car batteries under the Exide brand. NUEC was the corporate parent for Eureka vacuum cleaners and it also owned the Henney coachbuilding company. The late 1950s saw an influx of small, imported cars like the VW Beetle and Renault Dauphine  into the U.S. and the folks at Exide thought an electrically powered Dauphine would be a perfect vehicle to promote the firm's batteries. Eureka engineers designed the original electric drivetrain. Henney, the maker of “professional cars”, such as ambulances, hearses and limousines, was contracted to build the Kilowatt, and made somewhere between 43 and 47 cars, depending on the source.

The Kilowatt had a seven-horsepower electric motor, and was originally powered in 1959 by six 6-volt lead-acid batteries wired in series for a total of 36 volts. There was no gearbox, just a forward-reverse switch sitting between two electrical meters on the dashboard. Priced at $3,600, it was about double the cost of a regular Dauphine. It had an advertised range of 40 miles with a top speed of 35 mph.

1959 Henney Kilowatt
1959 Henney Kilowatt interior

That power was apparently not adequate, and NUEC turned to Wouk to reengineer and upgrade the power system. Adding six more batteries in the rear-engined Dauphine's front trunk doubled the voltage. However, electric cars need sophisticated speed controls. You can't run that much power through conventional rheostats, so Wouk designed the first solid-state EV speed control ever to be built. The more powerful 1960 models supposedly could go 60 miles at 60 mph.

With just seven horses on tap, the range figure might have been accurate but the 60 mph speed was probably a bit optimistic. The stock 27-horsepower gasoline powered Dauphine had a top speed of just 70 mph, and the batteries added almost 800 lbs to the Henney’s curb weight. A potential buyer could conceivably improve performance and range by replacing the 12 six-volt cells with six 12-volt batteries that would likely weigh less.

After NUEC gave up on making the Henney, some of the leftover cars made their way to Florida and reemerged in 1975 as the Tiffany Mark 5. As you can see in the local newscast from the time, the performance and top speed were not on par with modern traffic standards.

The Kilowatt for sale is being advertised as the first that was made, although it's listed as a 1960 model and has the second series' full complement of twelve batteries, six in back and six up in the rear-engined Dauphine's front trunk.

This Henney Kilowatt is a bit shabby, with some surface rust, but it appears complete and there doesn't appear to be any perforation rust. It's being offered on Hemmings at a price of $9,000, “negotiable”.