This article was originally featured on The Drive.
Today’s onslaught of electric vehicles might feel like it’s coming out of nowhere, but really, it’s the culmination of years and years of research and development from a number of automakers. Go back a few decades, and you start to find some really strange and captivating stories from the dawn of our modern electric revolution. Recently, I stumbled upon one of the most incredible unknown projects from that era: Back in the early 1990s, Motorola—yes, that Motorola—built a fully functional 1987 Chevy Corvette EV prototype. And moreover, the car still exists today, a future museum piece currently sitting in a random salvage yard in Gurnee, Illinois, waiting to be discovered by the right buyer.
Right now, you’re probably as surprised as I was. Motorola made cars? Motorola made electric cars? But after getting the tip and checking it out in person, I couldn’t deny what was before my eyes—a fully-intact C4 Corvette with a battery-electric drivetrain, official Motorola markings all over it, and stacks and stacks of internal Motorola paperwork on the project. It’s the real deal.
In an era where EVs were mostly homemade kit cars cobbled out of cheap hatchbacks, Motorola built itself a proto Tesla Roadster that, from what I’ve been able to learn, matched the performance of its contemporary gas-powered sports cars. Even more surprising was that as I dug around, I realized basically no information about this car exists online. No rumors, no reports, no chronicles on hobbyist EV sites and forums from the mid-2000s. It’s an amazing project that apparently lived and died at the tail end of the analog age, slipping out of sight just before the internet could hoover up its story and immortalize it for everyone.
So how did such an important piece of automotive history end up languishing in a random garage in northern Illinois? The world needs answers, so I decided to find out. The story is still incomplete, but here’s what we know so far.
What got me there
The Corvette EV story started from a random tip from a friend about a different obscure car that was little bit north of the Chicagoland area—a Chinese-made Beijing Jeep that was badged as a Fuqi, if you’re curious. As The Drive’s resident Chinese car fanatic, I wanted to check it out. Soon, I was in touch with the Fuqi’s owner, Larry Brosten, the proprietor of Auto Parts City.
While chatting, Brosten dropped a bombshell on me, maybe in an attempt to drum up more interest in his ginormous collection of custom cream-de-menthe colored Studebakers, 6.9-liter V12 Benzes. “I’ll do ya one better,” he said. “I’ve got a one-of-one 1987 Chevy Corvette, done up by Motorola.”
For some reason, what Brosten said didn’t immediately click. “It’s probably just a pace car or something, maybe some weird livery,” I thought to myself. But within two seconds of Brosten unveiling his Motorola Vette to me in a garage a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin border, I realized that I had wildly underestimated its significance. It wasn’t some decal package. It was a one-of-a-kind fully electric prototype vehicle that was built by Motorola Automotive sometime in the early to mid-1990s.
And not only that, but Brosten was also in possession of the motherlode of its development documentation.
The car itself
I’ll tell you right off the bat: The car doesn’t run. Brosten says that the previous owner left it outside in the winter, which ruined the batteries. He’s not sure what it would take to get running, and he wasn’t clear how long he’s owned the electric Vette.
Outside, the car looks like any normal, pre-facelift Chevy Corvette C4 convertible. It’s red and has the same body panels and interior as the standard Corvette, but no badging, wheels or anything that would inform any passerby that it’s different, save for the “EL” electric vehicle plate on the rear. Today, EL plates are fairly common, once mandatory on all electric cars registered in Illinois until mid-2020. Back in the early to mid-1990s, chances that any stranger would understand what those plates meant would be pretty slim.
Pop the reverse-opening, clamshell hood, and you’re greeted with several silvery boxes with scary-looking “High Voltage” stickers on them. On top of the biggest box closest to the vehicle firewall sits a bright blue Motorola Automotive logo. The conversion is bespoke, definitely using as many stock C4 Corvette pieces as possible, along with the proprietary electric powertrain.
From what we can see, the EV Vette seems to be powered by an unknown amount of what appear to be deep-cycle batteries; many of them in the trunk, some possibly in the floorboards, and four to six underneath the hood, housed in those big silver “high-voltage” boxes. None of the documents specify how many batteries the Corvette used or where they were placed, so I’m only going off of what I can see as the car sits in a dimly lit and dusty warehouse. The batteries look old, with a limited warranty and “void if not dated” stickers that only go up to 1997. Whatever electric motor sits under the hood of the Corvette appears to send power to the Corvette’s manual transmission and spins the rear wheels. None of the documentation explains how much power the electric Vette’s motor made, though.
The charging plug was done in such a manner that it would have fit right in the same housing as the old gas fuel filler door. Yet, it looks like the charging port was removed and the lines hastily capped. It’s unclear when this was done, possibly when the car left Motorola, but before it came into Brosten’s possession. Brosten himself isn’t sure how the previous owner charged the car.
Brosten said he got the car from a former Motorola engineer who worked at the company during this project, but not on the project itself. The car floated around Motorola’s Northbrook, Illinois, headquarters until, somehow, someone escaped with it. According to Brosten, the car’s previous owner stealthily rolled around the Chicagoland area it until it eventually came into Brosten’s possession.
Accompanying the car are acres of documents; about a phonebook’s worth of wiring diagrams, blueprints, and technical schematics that likely only an electrical engineer can make sense of. Some blueprints and correspondences are hand drawn and done in pencil. Interestingly the documentation even outlines plans for the charging, using a now-obsolete NEMA L10 connector, but it’s unclear if the Corvette needed any other parts to its charging system. This setup would be a pre-Magne Charge (SAE J1773) charging paddle, like what you’ve seen on a GM EV1 or early Toyota RAV4 EV, and also pre AVCON, like what one would have found on cars like the very early Ford Ranger EV. Those two technologies were early attempts to standardize the EV charging experience, rather than the “Home Depot special” 220- to 240- volt plug found on most EV homebuilt kits.
Inside, the Corvette looks mostly stock, save for the big, red kill switch near the driver’s right leg, and another metallic box with wiring behind the seats. In the center console, a nearly OEM-looking electric heater switch had been cut in next to the stock power mirror switch. Under the hood, the electric heater is made by a company named Russco, and appears to use the same routing lines as the standard gas-powered car’s heater core; meaning, the Corvette’s standard HVAC likely worked to some degree.
The documents from the phonebook stack seem to support this theory, too. Corvette wiring diagrams with pin-out information look to be something Motorola engineers likely used to keep the gas-powered car’s ancillary functions. It appears there was an attempt to make the hydraulic power steering work, and the vehicle’s ride height looks about the same as the gas-powered car. Batteries and electric motors are heavy, and the Corvette’s stance isn’t dramatically sagging or too low, meaning that, at least, there was likely some thought in keeping the Vette’s weight in check. All are hallmarks of a sophisticated EV prototype, rather than a homebrew ‘90s-era conversion that would have used a whole bunch of batteries and a glorified golf cart motor.
The whole project was definitely a secret; deep in the documentation are procedures on how to act when visitors were at the Motorola office. Motorola employees privy to the existence of the EV Vette weren’t to ever work on the batteries, plug the vehicle in for a charge, put it on a lift, or even pop the hood if visitors were in the building.
The documents place the development of the car as starting sometime in 1992 or 1993. Motorola purchased the used 1987 C4 Corvette with about 64,000 miles on the clock in the winter of 1993. This Convertible would have been equipped with the Chevy 350, making 250 horsepower, and matched to the strange 4+3 manual transmission with automatic overdrive endemic to early C4 manual Corvettes.
One of the first pages of the documentation includes a starting and driving procedure. Starting and driving the EV Vette was pretty seamless. The driver merely had to insert the key and turn it, taking care not to press the throttle while not in gear, since the motor would turn. Since the motor wouldn’t turn unless the throttle was depressed, drivers could place the car into first or reverse without depressing the clutch. While on the move, the documentation recommended using first gear for slow speed driving up to 30 mph. Otherwise, Motorola suggested drivers cruise around in second gear, then allow the automatic overdrive function that the gas-powered Vette already had to take over at higher speeds. To shut the car off, simply turn the key, set the parking brake, and walk away. Very simple, especially for the era.
The Motorola E-Vette’s previous owner attested that the EV setup was as fast as, if not faster than, the 250-hp gas-powered Vette, according to Brosten. A paper marked “EV Power” states that at 320 volts and 1,000 amps, the car, in theory, will output 428 hp. That’s Polestar 2 levels of power, but back in the 1990s. By comparison, the original Toyota RAV4 EV only had 67 hp, and the GM EV1’s 137 hp was an unheard-of rocket by EV standards of the era.
I’m not an electrical engineer, but I gather that the documentation Brosten has for the EV Vette isn’t complete. None of it has any battery information for the vehicle, so we don’t know how many kilowatt-hours, amperes, or volts the batteries currently installed could cumulatively make. Sure, the EV power paper insists that the car could potentially make 428 hp, but there’s no real way to know if the batteries in there could support that output, or what the voltage and ampere specifications of the installed electric motor are rated for. The documentation for the electric motor seems to be lost.
I’m also not sure if the Motorola Vette had the ability to sustain a 320-volt system back in the 1990s when it was developed because battery technology just wasn’t there yet. EVs of the era (including the GM EV1) primarily used nickel-metal hydride, or lead-acid batteries, not the relatively energy-dense, high voltage lithium-ion batteries found in most modern cars. I can’t see watt-hour, amperage, or any information at all on the handful of batteries visible, if they are in fact simple auto parts store deep-cycle batteries.
Tracking people down
Clearly, there are a ton of question marks here. The care and OEM precision of the electric Corvette tells me that Motorola was clearly serious about the project. Brosten told me that he heard that the Corvette wasn’t the company’s only electric vehicle prototype and that it had several other prototypes using different types of vehicles, all showcasing whatever EV tech Motorola was working on during that time.
Unfortunately, this is where the trail goes cold.
Like it or not, 1992 was a really long time ago. That’s 30 years since the development of the EV Corvette started. Motorola Automotive no longer exists, having been sold off and acquired by Continental AG back in 2006. Yes, the tire company.
There were some names on the printed-out intra-office Motorola emails included in Brosten’s stack of documents, and a few names on blueprints and engineer drawings. I succeeded in finding a couple of people on LinkedIn; more than a couple of the profiles indicate they’d worked at Motorola Automotive for nearly 40 years but ignore the switchover to Continental. It’s very possible that many of the engineers that worked on the Corvette are retired or have since passed away. I sent messages to everyone I found, but none have replied.
I also reached out to GM, Motorola, and Continental, and none were familiar with the EV Vette, even after I dropped some names of the engineers who worked on the project. This is strange, to say the least. Why did everyone just forget about this project? I’ve been researching this Vette since I first heard about it in 2021, and yet, all of my leads have turned into dead ends.
For his part, Brosten is mainly interested in selling the Corvette—ideally to a museum, to someone who can do it justice in getting it back on the road, or have it displayed in a way that gives such a strange project its due credence. His nephew recently put it on TikTok, but so far most offers have been “just talk,” according to Brosten.
So here’s where you come in. We are admittedly publishing this piece without knowing everything in the hopes that it jogs some memories out there and gets us closer to the real story of Motorola’s electric Corvette. Did you work at Motorola Automotive anywhere from the late 1980s until it was folded into Continental in 2006? Do you know someone who did, who might have been involved with the project? Do you have any inside information on what Motorola was planning to do with EVs? Get in touch here: firstname.lastname@example.org.