Electric cars – back to the future

As the world grows more environmentally concerned, one of the most popular aspects of this is the drive (pun intended) by governments and authorities to phase out petrol and diesel cars in favour of electric versions.  The sleek new electric car models we now see on our roads are not a new invention reflecting our modern era, they actually have a long history. So we have been here before but this time around, the electric car is here to stay.

Experimental Electric Wagon by Morris & Salom, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, circa 1895. (Image: JT Vintage/Universal Images Group)

In the early and mid 19th century, development and breakthroughs from the first electric engine through to a rechargeable battery, culminated in possibly the first human-carrying electric vehicle with its own rechargeable power source. It was a tricycle design built in Paris in 1881 by the French inventor Gustave Trouvé.

The popularity of electric cars increased at the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of their production for sale to the public. 

Pope Motor Car Company, Advertisement for Toledo and Waverley Electric Automobiles, 1904. (Image: JT Vintage/Universal Images Group)

As electric vehicles came onto the market, so did a new type of vehicle – the gasoline-powered car – thanks to improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1800s. While gasoline cars had promise, they weren’t without their faults. They required a lot of manual effort to drive – changing gears was no easy task and they needed to be started with a hand crank, making them difficult for some to operate. They were also noisy, and their exhaust was unpleasant.

Electric cars didn’t have any of the issues associated with steam or gasoline. They were quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit a smelly pollutant like the other cars of the time. Electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents. They were perfect for short trips around the city, and poor road conditions outside cities meant few cars of any type could venture farther. As more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, it became easier to charge electric cars.

Advertisement for the Detriot Electric Chainless Brougham Car from The Saturday Evening Post, 1911. (Image: Design Pics History/Universal Images Group)

Yet, it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales. Other developments also contributed to the decline of the electric vehicle. By the 1920s, the U.S. had a better system of roads connecting cities, and Americans wanted to get out and explore. With the discovery of Texas crude oil, gas became cheap and readily available for rural Americans, and filling stations began popping up across the country. In comparison, very few Americans outside of cities had electricity at that time. In the end, electric vehicles all but disappeared by 1935.

In the 1990s, emerging climate change awareness and policies such as the 1990 Clean Air Act in the United States, turned attention to electric cars once more. The emergence of new companies such as Tesla and existing fossil fuel car manufacturers producing electric and hybrid models such as Toyota’s ‘Prius’ brings us to the present but, undeniably with a nod to the past.

Featured image of an auto advertisement circa 1910 for Baker Electrics (Image: JT Vintage/Universal Images Group)





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