Car: Zagato Zele 1000, 1972

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Italian coachbuilder Zagato was a byword for motoring excitement—a dream factory making strikingly styled sports cars. So no wonder visitors to the 1972 Geneva Motor Show were shocked at the company’s display. It’s new car was 77in (196cm) long, and could manage 25mph (40kph) in eerie silence.

1972 Zagato Zele 1000
A world away from Zagato’s sports car bodies, the upright electric Zele kept the company afloat through the grim economic 1970s wasteland.

The rationale for designing the Zele was straightforward: Zagato was in trouble, its traditional market for handmade Italian GT cars quickly eaten away by cheap rivals such as the Ford Capri, Opel Manta, and Datsun 240Z. Zele provided a new direction for the Italian company, founded in 1919.

1972 model of the car Zagato Zele 1000
1972 car Zagato Zele 1000

The “1000” stood for the wattage available from its Marelli electric motor attached to the rear axle, fed by four 24-volt batteries.

It proved a prescient move because, by the time the boxy little Zele was rolling down Zagato’s production line in Milan in 1974, the global fuel crisis spurred on by Middle East turmoil was biting hard. Alternative fuel vehicles were in vogue, and by 1975, Zele annual sales were 225. Zagato had distributors in the US (Elcar) and Britain (Bristol); a van and an open golf buggy, perfect for Florida, were developed by 1978, and the 1981 Nuova Zele offered four-seater accommodation.

1972 model of the car Zagato Zele 1000
1972 Zagato Zele 1000

Zagato continued to make electric cars until 1991, by which time the fortunes of its specialized car coachwork business had been revived thanks to exciting co-productions such as the Aston Martin Vantage Zagato and Alfa Romeo SZ.

“If you need an extra spurt of power to cut off a pizza delivery boy, there’s the overdrive pedal. Pressing it gives the Zele an extra but limited burst of speed. Since it’s an electrical current that powers the engine and not gas, air, and a spark, like a light bulb it’s either on or off, meaning the driver has little control.”

Paul Walton, Classic & Sports Car Magazine, 2007

Video: Model of the car Zagato Zele 1000

Specification: Model of the car Zagato Zele 1000

HISTORICAL STATUS: production car
ENGINE: electric motor
LAYOUT: rear-mounted engine driving the rear wheels
BODYWORK: two-door, two-seater sedan
TOP SPEED: 25mph (40kph)
NUMBER BUILT: approximately 3,000 (all Zagato electric vehicles)