Plugging In: The First Electric Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 12, 2014

Believe it or not, the electric car was invented at almost exactly the same time as the gasoline car, and its beginnings were equally colorful. What is arguably the first car (okay, a toy, but a steam vehicle that moved under its own power) was built by a Flemish Jesuit missionary in the 17th century — for the Chinese court.

The very earliest EVs are a bit murky in the historical record. An electric tricycle was constructed in 1881 by a Frenchman named Rafford, but I can’t even find out his first name! The Horseless Carriage says the tricycle was accompanied by a tram car “operated in an experimental way.” The Motor Age says the trike weighed just 176 pounds and was “the first electrically operated road car.” It had just one eighth of a horsepower, “fed by 12 Faure accumulator cells.” One G. Trouve built a second one six months later, and a third from Professors Aryton and Perry was demonstrated at St. Andrews Hall in Glasgow, Scotland in 1883.

But the first electric car for which we have much of a record is attributed to Magnus Volk, a British electrical engineer. You can’t make stuff like this up. Volk was a larger-than-life inventor who also built a unique hydraulically powered clocktower, and the first electric train—still running along the beach today. He entertained the resort town of Brighton with a three-wheeled electric dog cart in 1887. He then followed it with a four-wheeled carriage in 1888—built for the Sultan of Turkey.

The Turkish dignitary was H.M. Sultan Abdul Hamid, and the sale was apparently a success because Hamid also bought Volk’s electric boat the following year. Electric boats became Volk’s obsession, and he moved from Brighton to Clapham and Wandsworth to operate a series of electric launches on the Thames.

Magnus Volk's first tricycle, built in 1887.The scene now shifts to America. Actually, there are messy bits elsewhere, but the U.S. history is fascinating. The first American electric is attributed to Scotland-born William Morrison of Iowa, who in 1890 built an 800-pound, four-horsepower car with a 24-cell battery and heady top speed of 14 mph. Three years later, it was exhibited to much acclaim at the World’s Columbian Exhibition.

William Morrison (one of those bearded guys) with his 14-mph car, which was widely acclaimed at the Columbian Exhibition in 1893.
The electric craze was on. By 1897, the Electric Vehicle Company was operating electric taxis in Manhattan. Strange but true, though the enterprise was short-lived. Founded by a street car tycoon, playboy and former Navy Secretary named William C. Whitney, it kept the cabs on the street with battery swapping stations. But the company expanded too fast and was out of business by 1907.

Electric taxis wait for New York fares in the last years of the 19th century. Andrew Riker was a brilliant New York-based engineer who built his first electric car in 1894, using a pair of Remington bicycles as his platform. He was 26 at the time, and an early hot rodder, in 1896 winning the very first car race (of any type) in America. In 1901, he reached 57 mph in the battery-powered “Riker Torpedo,” setting a world record that stood for 10 years. Soon he was mass producing electric trucks in New York.

Riker's Torpedo was a speed racer. Riker, the first president of the Society of Automotive Engineers, saw the limited future for electric cars long before anybody else did, and switched to gas cars when he took a job at Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Locomobile in 1902. While there, he developed the famous “Old 16” race car—the first American-made racer to win the Vanderbilt Cup.

One of Riker’s electric racers from 1898 is still with us, and, unrestored, it occupies a corner of the showroom at Dragone Motor Cars in Westport, Connecticut. The Dragone brothers think it may be the earliest American electric car in existence. They’re planning to restore the 72-volt car, which in its prime (with Edison batteries) offered 40 mph cruises and a 50-mile range, and get it back on the road for the first time since 1910. There are only six Rikers in existence today, and three of them are in the Henry Ford Museum.

This 1898 racer was campaigned by Andrew Riker, and now awaits restoration in Connecticut. It may be the oldest electric car still with us. (Jim Motavalli photo) Riker and the other pioneers aren't totally forgotten, but as with much of the early history of the automobile, their careers and colorful exploits aren’t widely known. The horseless carriage didn’t start with Henry Ford! By the way, it's impossible to definitively prove who invented either the electric or gas car--there are tons of pretenders. For instance, this video makes the case that a pair of Swedes invented the electric car--in 1835. Of course, they only built a model, but a replica was built...and it works!

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