What were the first electric cars?

David Long

26.11.2021

There are Tesla owners out there who believe Elon Musk personally invented the electric car, and plenty of others who still think battery powered motoring is a brilliant 21st century innovation. 

Well they couldn’t be more wrong, although in world that remains largely fossil-fuelled they can probably be forgiven for forgetting that for a long time there were all sorts of alternatives before petrol and diesel finally began their seemingly unstoppable rise to the top.

The strangest include coal-dust, coal-gas, wood, and even gravity, while one attempt on the world land speed record pinned its hopes on a lethal mixture of dynamite, TNT and nitro-glycerine. 

The bid failed, unsurprisingly, but at the start of the last century steam-power and batteries both looked as likely to succeed as petrol, which in any case was sold as a patent medicine (effective against lice and lice eggs) before anyone thought of putting it in a car.

America’s first President Roosevelt was a great fan of steamers, but they were complex and so expensive that the delightful sounding Doble-Detroit Model F cost as much as two Rolls-Royces. 

Electric vehicles seemed cheaper and more practical even though the inventor of the first one, based on an English James Starling tricycle in 1881, found it so hard to patent his idea that he went off and built an electric boat instead. (Somewhat confusingly, he called this Le Téléphone.)

Steam if you want to go faster - the Doble-Detroit Model F

However, others quickly took up where Gustave Trouvé had left off. Very soon electric cars were outperforming everything else on the road and by such a margin that in 1899 one of them became the first automobile ever to exceed 100 kph. 

Tragically its Belgian driver was later shot dead while hiding behind a tree and making wild animal noises. As Camille Jenatzy was on a hunting trip with friends at the time, the tragedy was perhaps inevitable. 

Nevertheless, between 1896 and 1939, there were an incredible 565 different car makers producing battery-powered models in a dozen different countries. Admittedly, many were built in only small numbers but their impact was undeniable. They included the first car ever designed by Ferdinand Porsche (of the eponymous German sports car company) and London’s original fleet of motorised taxis.

The original motorised taxis were all battery powered

Nearly 80 of these black and yellow vehicles were owned and operated by the London Electric Cab Company before 1900. Passengers called them hummingbirds (because of their distinctive sound) although some complained that the weight of the batteries meant the company’s traditional horse-drawn rivals often got them home first. 

The same technology fared rather better in America. At the turn of the century, 40% of cars there were powered by steam, 38% by electricity and only 22% ran on gasoline. By 1914 New York alone had more than 2,000 electric cars running around the metropolitan area including the charming-sounding Morris & Salom Electrobat and a fleet of nearly 40 battery powered delivery trucks on Fifth Avenue which belonged to Lord & Taylor, America’s oldest department store. 

Europe had nothing comparable although electric cars managed to attract several high-profile early adopters in the UK. The most famous was Queen Alexandra who liked to drive herself in a City & Suburban Electric Phaeton around the Royals’ estate at Sandringham in Norfolk. Sadly, she was never able to change her mother-in-law’s mind and Queen Victoria insisted until the end of her reign that motor cars were noisy contraptions which she found smelly and disagreeable.

The snappily-named Morris & Salom Electrobat was a regular sight in New York a century ago

Inevitably in these early days battery range and charging times were problematic although for a while it looked as though the great Thomas Edison might ride to the rescue. America’s most prolific inventor (credited with nearly 1,100 patents) claimed that what he called his new ‘wonder battery’ would solve the challenges of weight and endurance. 

Unfortunately nothing came of this, prompting one company in Connecticut to start an innovative battery-exchange programme to which car owners could subscribe.Even this wasn’t enough, however, and EV numbers soon began to dwindle. 

Although it’s unlikely that Henry Ford actually set out to kill them he almost did it anyway when he chose petrol engines over electric motors for his cheap but brilliant Model T. By sticking these into more than 15,000,000 of them he turned a rich man’s plaything into the machine that changed the world. Literally. 

Electric cars weren’t dead, but it would take more than a century for the fightback to begin. 

Henry Ford and a Model T Henry Ford and the Model T killed the electric car - for a century, at least

David Long’s books for children have been translated into more than two dozen languages and include The World’s Most Magnificent Machines published by Faber & Faber.

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