Today, with the cost of gasoline heading into the stratos-phere, everyone-from politicians to real people-is screaming for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Big SUV sales have dropped, and alternate-fuel vehicles are once again the hot topic of conversation in the car biz. Baby boomers will remember that the same thing happened over 20 years ago and, for a brief time, one of the leaders in alternate-propulsion vehicles was a kit car company-run by a ghost!
The last phony gas crisis was masterminded by the petroleum industry to inflate prices (some things never change). OPEC caught the blame for reducing the supply of oil, but domestic oil prices were already streaking upward when the oil slick hit the fan in 1973. By the end of the decade, the fuel supply had been artificially reduced to produce long lines at gas stations and unimaginable prices at the pump. And the petroleum magnates successfully fought off every attempt to control prices.
The effect on the auto industry was staggering. High performance became a disparaging term, and by the mid-'70s one of the fastest cars you could buy was a six-cylinder Mustang II. Yech! The drums were beat for electric cars, which could theoretically reduce dependence on oil and clean up the environment as well. Detroit pundits, as usual, showed zero interest in doing anything constructive other than to furrow their brows and mutter darkly about the hazards of government interference in a free market. But deep in the dark recesses of Minnesota, Bradley Automotive was ready to change the face of the industry, led by their fictitious president Gary Bradley!
Having a fictional president may have its benefits (many of us can think of at least one American president who could have been replaced to good effect by, say, Ronald McDonald). But the Bradley company was the only kit car firm directed by an imaginary figurehead. The real Bradley founders were Gary Cornyea and David Bradley Fuller, who combined their names to invent Gary Bradley, whose signature was on the bottom of their corporate literature and even on some legal documents. Very strange.
But Bradley Automotive was for real. By the late 1970s they were one of the largest kit car companies in the United States due to the success of their two most popular models, the basic Bradley GT and the more sophisticated (and pricey) Bradley GTII. Both were based on the VW Beetle floorpan and featured ease of assembly and a reasonable price, rather than breathtaking performance. They expanded their line to include an MG TD replica, the lovely Marlene NeoClassic, and an unconvincing VW-based '57 T-Bird replica called the Veebird. In 1979 there was another upward spike in fuel prices, and Bradley decided it was time for action.
In 1980 Bradley introduced an all-electric version of the GTII kit called the Bradley GTE. Although there had been other electric kit cars, the GTE was one of the most sophisticated alternate-fuel vehicles on the market at the time. The VW floorpan and transaxle were retained, but the suspension was beefed up with overload shocks, front and rear, to handle the increased weight of 17 lead-acid batteries. Bolted to the transaxle was a General Electric Tracer I 20.7hp direct-traction electric motor. The GTE was developed with GE, who also supplied their EV-1 controller system.
Propulsion was provided by 16 6-volt, 120-amp-hour, lead-acid batteries, while a single 12-volt battery ran the light system and wipers. The batteries had to be recharged for 8-10 hours by plugging into a household outlet, and Bradley claimed a range of 75 miles (owners reported 40 miles as a more realistic figure). Packed to the gills with batteries, the GTE was no featherweight at 2,900 pounds.
So how did it drive? Operating a GTE requires some new operator skills. First, you have to remember to unplug the charger (how embarrassing). Switch the power-control switch on the dash to "cruise" (48 volts) for smooth operation. The "boost" position (96 volts) kicks in more oomph but causes jerky operation at low speeds. Switch power on with the key-but don't pump the "gas" yet or the motor will lock up. The gearbox works in the normal fashion, and you can monitor your progress (no engine sound, remember) by watching the speedometer. The "accessory voltmeter" gauge monitors the 12-volt battery function, and motor volt gauges show whether the switch is set to 48 or 96 volts. The "state of charge" gauge indicates how much juice is in the batteries, and the "motor current" gauge shows the current draw of the motor.
Top speed was estimated at 75 mph (55 in cruise mode) with 0-30 taking about 8 seconds (versus 6.3 seconds for a stock 36hp VW Beetle). For extra power on hills or impromptu street races with kids on bicycles, the switch could be thrown to boost for brief periods, but this put a serious crimp in the range.
With nearly 3,000 pounds of weight, the stock VW drum brakes were marginal, so Karmann Ghia front discs were a smart option. One GTE owner recently reported torsion-bar failure resulting from the increased strain on the VW underpinnings.
Living With Bradley
The Bradley GTE came out in 1980 and only remained in production a few years. Reportedly 50 were built in kit and turnkey form, before the oil glut of the mid-'80s (Gee! We found all that oil after all . . . ) drove the price of fuel down and gas guzzlers once again ruled the road. Bradley made electric versions of their other models, but the GTII-based GTE was the most popular. GTEs can still be found, and a recent Web search rounded up prices from $7,000 to $12,000. Some enterprising owners have upgraded their components to provide better performance and longer range. Some have substituted 8-volt batteries in place of the 6-volts or have switched to more sophisticated controllers. The original windshield defroster was marginal-one enterprising owner has replaced it with two hair dryers!
One of the highest-visibility GTEs was once owned by actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., who regularly drove his to press functions. In 1997 General Motors introduced the first quasi-practical electric car, the EV1, but since then increased gas mileage from conventional gas engines and hybrids have made it obsolete. Currently (no pun intended), the limiting factor in all electrics is a short cruising range due to mediocre battery life, but future developments in fuel-cell technology could make pure electrics a viable alternative for daily transport.
The GTEs are interesting toys, and if you have a short commute they still provide stylish, quiet, socially responsible transportation. However, don't expect modern levels of performance or comfort from this '80s design. Its straight-line performance makes a Rabbit Diesel look like a Lamborghini Diablo, and the brakes and suspension have their hands full with the extra battery weight. The operating range was reduced in cold winter weather, and interior heat was provided by an optional gasoline-fired heater. Air conditioning was not an option. Although the Bradley GTE is showing its age, it also helped show us the way to the future.
Upgrading The GTE
KIT CAR readers Eric Jorgensen and Kevin Beecher have made many upgrades to their GTEs. Jorgensen replaced most of his electrics to take advantage of modern developments, although he kept the original traction motor. "It is still the Rolls Royce of EV motors," he says.
Out went the 96-volt battery system, to be replaced with a 120-volt system for more performance and range, which meant replacing the controller, battery charger, and converters as well. Jorgensen says his DCP 600 Raptor controller is quieter, more reliable, more powerful, and much more efficient than the old EV-1 unit. He also upgraded to a computer-controlled Zivan NG-3 battery charger, which increases the range and the life of the battery packs. Jorgensen estimates the range has increased to 60 miles and the top speed to 100 mph.
Jorgensen also believed the stock VW suspension was inadequate for the car's weight and had custom air shocks made, which greatly improved the ride and handling. While he was at it, he also added four-wheel disc brakes.
Beecher has also been thinking along the same lines. After visiting Jorgensen, he too switched to the Raptor controller, although he has not tried the Zivan charger. Beecher's father built the family GTE back in the '80s, while Jorgensen's car was factory assembled.
For online information, check out Jorgensen's GTE (which he recently sold) at www.austinev.org/evalbum/207.html. Beecher has a great GTE page at enrollment.csusb.edu/~kevin/bradleyGT2/.