The ZAP Electric Vehicles’ story begins in Santa Rosa, California, back in 1992. Jim McGreen and Garry Starr were the men behind the company. ZAP is an acronym for “Zero Air Pollution” (Source). From the onset, the company set its sights on designing, manufacturing, and distributing a range of green cars, trikes, scooters, and other zero air pollution electric products.
In its lifetime, ZAP went through a series of changes, corporate adjustments, product recalls, and controversies. These controversies included a $500-million lawsuit it brought against DaimlerChrysler, a contentious board reshuffle, and accusations that the company executives raised funds by promising more than they could deliver.
The company went on to change its name to Zapworld.com Inc. and created a website by the same name. However, the site went down sometime in 2017. What could have happened to the company that once announced itself as “the only recognized brand name in electric transportation?” (Source). We took some time to find out.
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The History of ZAP Electric Cars
McGreen and Starr incorporated ZAP in 1994, two years after they’d met. The company went public two years later and raised $2 million in capital. In 1997, ZAP launched the Zappy upright scooter, a 15-mph two-wheeler that sold for $650. The company sold around 2,000 units in 1998, mainly from the considerable amount of publicity it had received (Source).
In August 2000, ZAP announced that it had reached an agreement for a joint venture with the Chinese company, Ningbo Topp Industrial Co. Ltd. The company would distribute ZAP’s products across China, beginning with the Zappy scooter, and pay a royalty for all the electric bikes it sold in China.
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ZAP would become famous for two flagship products: The Xebra and the e-bike (both SX and DX).
In 2006, ZAP launched its first automotive product, a four-passenger sedan which it named Xebra. The Xebra, which is perhaps ZAP’s most notable product, would also feature a two-passenger pickup version. ZAP claimed that the model had a top speed of 40 miles an hour, a feat it claimed was “not currently available among existing EVs” (Source).
In 1995, the ZAP human/electric hybrid vehicle, the e-bike, was launched. It came in the SX or DX version. The hybrid bike could cover between 5 and 20 miles on 24-volt lead-acid batteries. The range depended on the riding conditions and how much input a user put through pedaling. The SX version was designed to cover longer distances while the DX delivered higher speeds (Source).
The SX or DX e-bike versions did not seem to be overly successful. Reports indicated that the ZAP had only sold about 15,000 bikes four years since it started manufacturing them. What makes this number low is that almost 400,000 electric bikes had been sold within that period (Source).
Even though the Xebra was not the fastest car on the road, it still attracted the attention of established firms like the delivery service UPS, who leased 42 Xebras in 2007. The vehicles were tried at the UPS Petaluma branch in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the same year, Domino’s Pizza also tested the viability of Xebras for moving its products within Las Vegas.
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There is little information available about the results from these tests. However, in press releases, the company was already indicating that it had sold over 100,000 cars in over 75 countries by 2008.
Even though ZAP was still not profitable, it continued to attract investors. In 2007, it received $10 million worth of funding from a Dubai-based vehicle distributor. The company also expanded its network of dealers from 20 to 50.
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In 1999, ZAP announced that it had changed its corporate name to Zapworld.com Inc. The change, the company indicated, was in keeping with the crucial role of the Internet in its marketing strategy.
At the time, the company announced that it was receiving around 12,000 to 15,000 requests per day to its website.
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A Company Dogged By Controversy
ZAP courted controversy from its early days. In late 1999, Starr reportedly coordinated with his wife and three other board members to vote out his co-founding partner McGreen as the president and CEO. Starr then took over control of the company, setting a series of significant changes in motion, including outsourcing the firm’s manufacturing to Taiwan.
In early 2007, ZAP announced that it would pursue the possibility of a long-range, high-performance car, which is called the ZAP-X. It would have a 644HP output, a 155-mph top speed, and a range of 350 miles on a single charge.
Impressed investors pumped money into the project and dealers signed up in anticipation. However, reports soon indicated that these investors would be disappointed as the only notable electric car to ever emerge from ZAP’s factories was the Xebra sedan and its truck version.
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In 2009, ZAP agreed to refund owners of about 700 Xebra sedan and pickups. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found 728 units of the XEBRA model to have braking issues that increased the risk of a crash. ZAP was compelled to pay back a total of around $2.14 million. The company also agreed that it would declare all its 2008 Xebra vehicles as “junk” so that no one could try to modify and resell them in the US (Source).
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ZAP vs. DaimlerChrysler
When DaimlerChrysler announced that it would be introducing the Smart two-seater car, which they named the Fortwo, into the US market, ZAP responded with a $500-million lawsuit. ZAP claimed that DaimlerChrysler was unlawfully intent on eliminating it from the California market.
The two companies had earlier entered into discussions around how to bring the Smart car into the market. ZAP had reportedly agreed to bring the European-made vehicles to the American market. The electric car maker claimed that it had placed a purchase order worth $1 billion for Smart cars.
However, DaimlerChrysler claimed that it wasn’t aware of such an arrangement and that it hadn’t received any purchase orders. DaimlerChrysler admitted that ZAP had initiated contact with the firm and even sent an unsolicited request for Smart cars.
ZAP, on the other hand, had already announced the purchase order. The company had even gone ahead to indicate that it had already secured monies for advanced purchase orders from its dealers.
Initially, ZAP suffered a setback when a CA court dismissed the case saying that it did not have jurisdiction to listen to it. An appeal court also came to the same decision, sending ZAP to the California Supreme Court (Source). We have tried to find out how the issue played out at the Supreme Court, but very little information is available.
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What Then Happened to ZAP Electric Cars?
In July 2010, ZAP Electric Cars acquired a 51% stake of the Chinese firm Jonway Auto, creating a joint EV venture with the Chinese manufacturer: ZAP-Jonway. It announced that the first product of the joint venture would be the sport utility vehicle UFO-A380, and later other models such as the Urbee and Sparkee. Production of these models started in 2014 (Source). In the same year, the company announced that it had plans to return to the US market with a 1000-vehicle conversion deal it had secured with Lishen.
It’s not clear whether ZAP-Jonway is still in business. However, as of 2020, the website Zapworld.com has been down for nearly three years.
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