Folding Electric Car Project … from 1991!

Design for a folding electric car for cities.

In 1989 to 1991 I studied Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London. As my major project I designed a folding electric car with wheel mounted motors and suspension. Last week a concept was shown in Spain that was “remarkably similar” to my design from 21 years ago. I decided then to write an article about my design, and how I came up with the idea.


The idea was to create a mechanism to shorten the car when the vehicle parked, to maximize the number of cars that could park in a given space, while enabling the car to be of sufficient length to hold 4 passengers and have a good ride. (Short cars are more bumpy and uncomfortable, and fair worse in accidents).

Rear wheels and trunk slide under centre of car shortening to around 2m


Prior to this I had studied Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College and been sponsored by the UK MoD where I had worked on the design of a hybrid tank prototype, using a petrol engine to charge batteries, the batteries then drove the wheels through epicyclic gearboxes. I had also worked on the fitting and testing of an active suspension system to a Scorpion Tank (see picture).

Scorpion Tank Research Vehicle 2 fitted with active suspension

I was then experimenting with bicycle suspension for my recently acquired mountain bike, that lead me to meet and interview Dr Alex Moulton of Mini and small wheeled bicycle fame. Moulton showed me that all wheeled vehicles should have suspension, as not only ride comfort suffers, but rolling resistance increases too. He built a bus without suspension to demonstrate this!

Alex Moulton with a full suspension road bike
Moulton with the Stowaway c1962



Armed with this knowledge and experience I worked up the concept for a folding car with, most importantly wheel units that contained power, steering suspension and brakes and controlled electrically (fly by wire). This would free up the packaging for the rest of the car enabling batteries, luggage etc. to be more efficiently packaged. If you are wondering how the wheels could work, the bearings are on the outer rim, rather like this “mono wheel vehicle”


This design could either be a hybrid or a fully electric model, but at the time I researched the best available battery technology and found out about a battery being developed at Berkley University California, by a Professor Jim Evans. This battery could be recharged in minutes using a liquid replaceable electrolyte with the anode held in suspension in the fluid. I visited Berkeley and met Prof Evans and his students and team, attended and gave some lectures about the concept.

Plate on the back has connections for electrolyte replacement

In 1991 a year of recession, this must have seen rather “far out” and it is only recently that we have seen fully electric cars on the streets, I walked past a charging point in London earlier today.

I remember Gerald Scarfe and Jane Asher visited my stand at the degree show and were very interested. Jane asked whether all the luggage would fall over, but I pointed out that the rear of the car changes angle only slightly compared to the front. I was using computer animation to demonstrate how the suspension and folding mechanism worked, using a crude 3D modeling and animation package called “Swivel 3D” Scarfe was interested in how long it took and how difficult it was to learn!

I am somewhat stunned that the idea I had 21 years ago is being hailed as the answer to our cities congestion problems! I would certainly be interested in working on similar projects again. Please contact me for further information.

Row of folded cars park front into kerb

Below is the image (with up to date CAD technology!) of the Smart Cities concept shown in Spain in January 2012 – 21 years after mine appeared in the press!


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