What We Can Learn From Our Colorful Electric Car History

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 18, 2017

What goes around, comes around. In 1900, there were only 4,192 automobiles made in the U.S., and 1,681 of them were steam powered, and 1,575 were electric. Gasoline, that was a distant third, with 936 produced. The steam car soon fell away as impractical, and that left the electric car in a very good position, especially as batteries and electric motors improved.

Women were frequent customers of early electric cars, which didn't need to be cranked.

At the first National Automobile Show in New York in 1900, patrons polled reported overwhelmingly that electric vehicles were the future. And so they were for at least a decade (with a lot of women at the wheel), but the seeds of the EV’s premature demise were already sown.

In 1911, Charles Kettering invented the first self-starter for gas cars, and it debuted on the 1912 Cadillac. This little device (ironically, an electric motor) meant that dangerous hand-cranking was out. The internal-combustion engine, hardly a model of reliability up to that point, began to get better and better, and soon the electric car was shunted off on a historical siding. Battery research was basically dead by 1920, and it wasn’t seriously revived until modern times.

See the plug? That's how they charged EVs in the old days--and still do today.

Electric cars today aren’t yet a third of the market, as they were in 1900, but they’re headed there—in China first. Last year, 352,000 EVs were registered in China, compared to just 159,000 in the U.S. Chinese electric car production could double next year, says Navigant Consulting.

The self-driving car—universally recognized as our next great leap forward—is going to be electric, because of multiple synergies between battery platforms and autonomous tech. And that will accelerate the modern EV revolution. I predict that by 2030, we’ll be well on our way to replacing our current crop of internal-combustion vehicles with self-driving EVs—mostly based in fleets. The private automobile will give way to mobility as a service. We’ll be making a course correction that’s as significant as our switch from horses was back at the beginning of the 20th century.

Le Jamais Contente, with Camille Jenatzy at the wheel. 65 mph in 1900.

So with that in mind, let’s see what lessons we can learn from our early EV history. It was quite a period of innovation, producing many important “firsts.”

Did you think, for example, that the hybrid car was a modern invention? Actually, no. The visionary Ferdinand Porsche built one between 1900 and 1902, and it used a gas engine to spin a generator that provided power to electric motors in the wheel hubs. It had 38 miles of range on battery power alone, about the same as today’s cars. 

Porsche's first hybrid car, from 1900-1902. Now the company is finally building them again. (Porsche photo)

The first American electric car was built by Iowa’s William Morrison around 1890. It was also reportedly the first land vehicle with a wheel instead of a carriage-type tiller. That’s interesting, because an EV may also have the last steering wheel, as we transition to cars that drive themselves. The first car with power steering? Another EV, in 1897.

Today’s EVs have regenerative braking to capture energy that’s usually lost as heat. But Louis Antoine Krieger’s French electric cars also had regen braking—in 1894. New York City has been experimenting with electric taxis lately, but the city had them in 1899. In fact, these Electric Carriage and Wagon Company taxis (built in Philadelphia) were 90 percent of the cabs in the city back then. There was handy curbside charging, too, something the city is finding hard to recreate now.

Electric taxis in New York--in the 1890s. They had curbside charging, something that's hard to come by in the city now.

Automakers promote the fact that electric motors produce 100 percent of their torque at zero RPM—they leap off the line. They knew that in 1895, when the first-ever auto race was won by an electric. And they knew it in 1900, when the Jamais Contente (“never satisfied”) became the first road vehicle to surpass 100 kmh per hour (62 mph). It was a Belgian electric race car with a lightweight aluminum alloy body that looked like a torpedo, so the engineers were discovering aerodynamics and the importance of reducing weight, all at the same time.  

Driver Camille Jenatzy actually topped 65 mph, which made le Jamais Contente the fastest car in the world back then. By 1902, the Baker Torpedo in the U.S.—sporting a lightweight aerodynamic body enclosing the chassis and driver—had reached 80 mph in official tests, and 120 mph in unofficial ones.

An early Riker electric car. Not bad for a college dropout.

Andrew Riker, an American college dropout and carmaker, was at the same time winning races in his electric speedsters. He built his first EV in his parents’ basement in 1884—shades of Steve Jobs in his California garage!

In 1896, the first American car dealership was set up—selling only electric cars. Keep that in mind, as Tesla struggles to convince states to let it set up its own dealer network. Henry Ford may have mass-produced the Model T, bringing the internal-combustion automobile within reach of the middle class. Ford drove a stake into the market for electrics, but he was also an EV supporter. He bought a Detroit Electric for his wife, Clara, and tried to built an EV with his bosom buddy, Thomas Edison (who also pioneered the electric windshield wiper).

Thomas Edison (left) and Henry Ford in 1927 collaborated on an EV prototype.

If EVs had remained on the market after 1920, we might have had lithium-ion batteries decades earlier. It’s funny that when EVs had a brief revival in the 1960s, they were powered by the same lead-acid batteries that were state-of-the-art when Alf Landon was presidential timber. It’s not surprising they failed. Especially when gas was 30 cents a gallon.

The electric car revival in the 1960s was short-lived. Not surprising, because ghastly cars like this one were powered by lead-acid batteries, and up against big V-8s running on 30-cent-a-gallon gas.

We can mine our colorful history to make a better future. Our great-grandparents plugged in their cars, and now we’re going to follow in their footsteps.

Here's a colorful visual history of the early electric car:


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