BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Advertisement feature
View the latest news

Forgotten electric cars: the VW Golf CityStromer

Volkswagen actually built its first electric hatchback way back in 1976

  • What is it?

    Volkswagen has been doing electric cars since the early Seventies. Its first was a T2 Transporter with a whopping 850kg lead-acid battery pack, between 30 and 50 miles of range and a 22bhp motor for 0-30mph (its top speed was only 46mph…) in a dizzying 12 seconds. VW ended up building 120 in various bodystyles – minibuses, vans, pick-ups and so-on.

    Then the Mk1 Golf landed, and within two years of its introduction VW engineers had turned a few they had laying around into rudimentary EVs. Eventually in 1981 it launched the CityStromer (‘strom’ is German for electricity) – an all-electric Mk1 Golf built in collaboration with German utility company RWE. Second- and third-generation CityStromers landed in 1985 and 1993 respectively.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • What kind of technology did it use?

    All generations of CityStromer pre-date the lithium-ion battery, as used in pretty much every EV and hybrid nowadays. They had old-school lead-acid batteries instead, which by modern standards are big and heavy relative to their energy density, inefficient and just don’t last very long.

    The first and second-gen CityStromers had 11.4kWh of battery, enough for around 40 miles of running. The third-gen car had a 17.3kWh battery pack that weighed in at 300kg and was supposedly enough for just under 60 miles of town driving.

  • Was it fast?

    No. Really, really no. All three generations of CityStromer had only around 30bhp from a single front-mounted electric motor. And all those lead-acid batteries meant they weighed significantly more than their internal-combustion-engined counterparts. A normal Mk1 Golf weighed comfortably under a tonne, but the CityStromer version tipped the scales at around 1,500kg. The result was a top speed of 60mph, and 0-30mph in around 13 seconds or so.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Was it cheap?

    Hard to say, because Mk1 CityStromers were never actually sold to the general public – only around 25 were built, with the majority going to utility company RWE as part of a trial.

    70 Mk2 CityStromers were built, and again most of those were sent to utilities companies and energy providers in Germany to use however they wanted. These cars were returned to VW, however, and later sold to members of the public.

    120 examples of the Mk3 CityStromer, which was developed in partnership with Siemens, were built between 1993 and 1996. These Golfs were actually offered for sale to the general public from the outset. As of 2017, it’s thought 50 were still on the road. It’s not clear how much VW charged for them back in the day, but no way were they cheap.

  • Tell me something interesting about it.

    VW and RWE took a CityStromer racing. Well, kind of. A Mk2 was lowered, lightened and otherwise modified with sticky tyres and special dampers before being entered into the ‘Grand Prix Formula E’ between 1986 and 1993. Nothing like today’s unrelated Formula E, of course. In VW’s words, entrants had to “drive according to regularity rules for one hour, complete three laps at high speed and finish the race with the legendary quarter-mile sprint – all in a single battery charge”. As you might have guessed from all those trophies, some success was had. 

  • What electric cars does Volkswagen make now?

    VW is just getting going with its ‘ID’ family of EVs. The ID.3, effectively a replacement for the old e-Golf, was launched last year. The flagship version claims a 336 mile range from a 77kWh battery. You can read our review of the ID.3 by clicking on these blue words.

    The ID.4 SUV is coming very soon indeed, and soon after that will come an ID.5.

  • Why did it fail?

    The CityStromer didn’t fail per se, because it was never put into full-scale production.

    Mk3s were used (along with loads of prototype EVs from other manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes and Opel) in a large-scale experiment run in Germany between 1992 and 1996. The Government asked some residents of the country’s largest island, Rügen, to use an EV as their only car, to gauge whether the tech on offer at the time was ready. It quickly emerged the answer was no, it wasn’t.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • What did we learn from it?

    That while it was possible to make an electric car in the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties, the battery tech just wasn’t there to make them a feasible alternative to a petrol- or diesel-powered car.

More from Top Gear

See more on Electric

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine