The smallest vehicle on display at the 1955 Powerama was the result of big hopes for a future filled with solar-powered cars.

Trains. Earthmovers. Trucks. Buses. Most vehicles on display at the 1955 General Motors Powerama show were large, massive, diesel-powered machines, but there was one exception in both size and powertrain: the GM Sunmobile.

The Powerama, held on Chicago’s waterfront, showcased General Motors’ powerful non-automotive equipment. The Euclid division showcased earthmovers and construction equipment, while the Electro-Motive Diesel division featured its sleek new Aerotrain. The exhibit’s “Previews of Progress” area, demonstrated numerous scientific advances – including the Sunmobile.

260548Compared to the other vehicles on display the Sunmobile was small – especially when compared to cars of the era.  Patterned after the 1955 Chevrolet Corvette, the Sunmobile measured 15 inches in length, making it essentially a 1/9th scale replica.

What the Sunmobile lacked in size, it made up in technology. Built by GM engineer William G. Cobb, the Sunmobile featured eight solar cells on its hood. These cells converted light into electricity, which in turn powered a small electric motor. Sunmobile produced the equivalent of 12 horsepower, which wasn’t quite enough to propel a full-size automobile of the era – but it was enough to propel the model across its Powerama stage.

Solar cars may not be a mass-production reality today, but that hasn’t stopped GM engineers from tinkering with the technology. In 1987, GM paired with AeroEnvironment to build a solar car for the World Solar Challenge in Australia. The result – the teardrop-shaped Sunraycer – not only finished the race two days before the competition, it also set a solar car speed record that stood until 2011.  GM also continues to sponsor the University of Michigan’s UMSolar team, which recently won the 2014 American Solar Challenge.

Power derived from the sun continues to play a role in powering our vehicles.

We currently have 88 solar electric vehicle charging stations at our facilities, including our Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, and at our Powertrain Engineering Campus in Pontiac, Michigan. And, early last year, we became a founding partner of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Workplace Charging Challenge, which has a goal of increasing EV workplace charging tenfold.

Globally, GM has solar panel arrays installed at twelve of our facilities, and collectively generates an astounding 38 MW (one megawatt = 1 million watts) of energy each year. It would take a mile-long convoy, consisting of 4,247 Sunmobiles, to generate anywhere near that figure. That convoy would have to quickly grow, too: As two additional solar arrays will be installed this fall at GM facilities in Flint and Swartz Creek, Michigan, GM’s use of solar energy continues to grow.