Electric Car History & A brief history of electric cars

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RENAULT Fluence Electric Cars

Electric Car History

1888 Electric Rover

Electric car history pre-dates Karl Benz’s infamous 1886 tricycle: somewhere between 1832 and 1839, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson built a very simple electric carriage, whilst American Thomas Davenport built an electric road vehicle in 1842.

The first vehicles were experimental only — the rechargeable batteries were not available until later in the 19th Century, with the first commercially available rechargeable batteries that were suitable for electric cars becoming available in 1881.

History was made when the first production electric car was built in London in 1884 by Thomas Parker — a British inventor who was responsible for electrifying the London Underground. By 1890, there were a handful of electric car makers around the world.

Early electric cars quickly established a reputation for performance, reliability and distance that it could travel: in comparison, the internal combustion engine was noisy, smelly and unreliable and had limited power. They had to be hand cranked to start them, which was dangerous and led to many injuries and fuel efficiency was poor — a real problem when fuel was not readily available.

The first world land speed record was set in an electric car: on the 18th December, 1898, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the record in a Jentaud automobile, powered by alkaline batteries, reaching a top speed of 39.245mph (62.792km/h) in Acheres Park, near Paris. Four months later, Camile Jenatzy drove another electric car — Le Jamais Contende — to a new world record, reaching 65.79mph (105.264km/h).

Electric Car History — 20th Century

By the turn of the 20th Century, electric cars were outselling gasoline cars. In New York, Paris and London, electric taxis had appeared and electric cars were liked because they were reliable, did not smell, vibrate or make noise and they were easy to drive.

At the turn of the century, all cars were ‘horseless carriages’ and they were used as direct replacements for the horse and cart: short journeys, lasting no more than a few miles at most. Roads out of town were little more than mud tracks: if you wanted to travel further afield, you took the train. In such an environment, it is no wonder that electric cars were popular.

Electric cars proved to be exceptionally reliable, too: in an era where an engine needed to be rebuilt every 500 miles, electric cars could continue for the whole of their working lives with very little maintenance. There was at least one instance of an electric taxi in London that covered 180,000 miles over a period of ten years — an unheard of distance at that time.

In Europe, electric cars continued to be popular until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. By the time the war had finished in 1918, gasoline cars were vastly more reliable, petroleum was significantly cheaper and more easily available and thanks to Henry Ford’s new mass production techniques, gasoline cars were far cheaper to buy than electric cars. Service stations and fuel pumps were appearing, making it easier to buy fuel.

New roads linking one town to another were being built enabling longer distance travelling. It was the end of an era: the electric car was … and the combustion engine was king.

Electric vehicles did not entirely disappear, however. In the United Kingdom, electric delivery vans had found a niche with home delivery companies: electric delivery vans found favour with companies like Harrods, and with milk delivery companies (‘milk floats’). By the early 1960s, over 60,000 electric delivery vans were in daily use in the United Kingdom. The traditional home delivery market went into decline in the 1970s and 1980s and the electric commercial vehicle market collapsed. Today, there are still around 12,000 ‘milk floats’ on the roads.

A significant number of these vans were originally built in the 1960s or 1970s, and very few are less than 20 years old — a testimony to the longevity of these electric vehicles.

The oil crisis in the early 1970s saw manufacturers planning a new era for electric cars. Ford, General Motors and AMC all produced a number of concepts and prototypes, whilst smaller companies such as Sebring-Vanguard and Elcar Corp in the United States, and Enfield in Europe produced and sold small two-seater electric city cars, a number of which are still in use today and have an enthusiastic following from their owners.

From that time onwards, however, the electric car quietly faded off the scene. In Europe, Fiat and Volkswagen both built a handful of cars in the 1980s, but the cost was too high and there was little or no public interest in them: petrol was comparatively cheap and there seemed no incentive to change.

Interest in electric cars only resurfaced in the mid-1990s, when concerns about the environment and climate change became a factor.

In the California, the California Air Resources Board passed a ruling called the Low Emission Vehicle Program in 1990, which was enacted by the Californian government to promote the use of zero emission vehicles. The law stated that 2% of all new vehicles sold in California were to be zero emission vehicles by 1998, rising to 10% of all new vehicles by 2003.

Across America, car makers developed new electric vehicles in order to comply with the new law. General Motors launched the EV1 electric sedan, Ford launched an electric version of its Explorer SUV and bought TH!NK, a Norwegian electric car manufacturer, Chrysler bought electric car maker GEM, Toyota produced an electric RAV-4 whilst Honda produced a small city car.

All the manufacturers offered their cars to the public through lease schemes rather than outright purchase. Technical problems dogged the EV1 and whilst owners were enthusiastic about their new cars, high leasing costs meant they were not good sellers: cars sold in tiny numbers.

Changes to the Low Emission Vehicle Program meant that manufacturers did not need to sell electric vehicles in California, and at the end of their leases, most of the cars were taken back by the manufacturers and many of them were crushed.

In Europe, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault started building electric versions of their small city cars. The Renault soon fell by the wayside, but Peugeot and Citroen manufactured a range of small commercial vehicles and city cars. Public interest was still low, however, and sales were below expectation.

First production of the city cars ceased in 2003, followed by the small electric delivery vans in 2006 — ironically, at the exact time when a resurgence in interest in electric vehicles were showing an upturn in sales.

History — Reva (G-Wiz)

In India, a tiny and unheard of new company was preparing to launch its new electric city car. Called ‘Reva’, the new car had quirky styling, could seat two adults and two small children, and had a range of around 40 miles and a top speed of 40mph.

The car sold in India in small numbers for the first few years. Then, in mid-2003, a British company called GoinGreen imported a few cars and branded them as ‘G-Wiz’.

The original idea of renting them out to commuters in Leeds floundered and the company moved to London in 2004.

At the same time, London was reeling from a new congestion charge tax: if you wanted to drive in London during the day, you had to pay a £5 ( 8) fee. Electric cars were exempt from the new charge.

The first G-Wiz’s appeared in London early in 2004. Taking Londoners by surprise, the car was an instant hit. Electric car charging points were installed in car parks and on streets, and London became recognised as the ‘Electric Car Capital’ of the world.

Electric car history — Global warming and pollution

Meanwhile, the awareness of global warming was increasing and Governments and politicians were increasingly viewing pollution from transportation as a major issue to be tackled.

Increasingly, the discussions between governments and car makers revolved around making cars cleaner and more fuel efficient whilst from the middle of the decade, electric cars came up on the agenda more and more often. Car makers started work on electric car research and started showing electric car concepts at motor shows.

Meanwhile, smaller manufacturers were launching new electric cars. NEVs were slowly gaining momentum in the United States, whilst electric quadricycles were becoming popular in London, Paris and Rome.

The Tesla electric sports car, originally announced in 2007, grabbed a huge amount of attention for electric cars. Here was a compact, fast, two seat sports car that looked and drove like a Ferrari and had a range of hundreds of miles. Public interest was growing and it wasn’t long before Tesla’s order books were full.


History — Cars available today

By 2010, mainstream manufacturers were joining the party. Mitsubishi was first with the i-MiEV — a four seat, four door city car now available in Japan and the United Kingdom. Ford and Nissan have cars being launched during 2010, whilst most manufacturers have an EV under development for launch in the next two years.

Incredibly, the history of electric cars stretches back around 175 years. Yet only now can it be said that ‘the car of tomorrow’ has finally arrived.

Return from Electric Car History to electric car information page.

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