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The History of Electric Cars – The Early Years (1890 – 1930) – Part 1

The History of Electric Cars – The Early Years (1890 – 1930)

The Early Years (1890 – 1930) The electric  vehicle is  not  a recent  development.  In  fact,  the  electric vehicle has  been  around  for  over  100  years,  and it  has  an  interesting history of development that continues to the present.  France and  England  were the  first  nations  to  develop the electric vehicle in the late  1800s.  It  was  not  until  1895  that  Americans  began to devote attention  to electric  vehicles. 
Many  innovations  followed and interest  in  motor  vehicles  increased greatly  in  the late  1890s  and early  1900s.  In  1897 the  first  commercial  application  was  established as a fleet of New York City taxis. The early  electric  vehicles,  such  as  the  1902  Wood’s  Phaeton,  were little more than  electrified horseless  carriages  and surreys.  The  Phaeton had a  range of  18 miles,  a  top  speed  of  14  mph  and cost $2,000. By  the turn  of  the  century,  America was  prosperous  and the  motor vehicle,  now  available in steam,  electric,  or  gasoline versions,  was becoming  more popular. 

The years  1899  and  1900 were  the high point  of  electric  vehicles  in America,  as  they  outsold  all  other types  of  cars.  Electric  vehicles  had many  advantages  over  their competitors  in  the early  1900s.  They  did not  have the  vibration, smell,  and noise  associated with gasoline cars.  Changing  gears on     gasoline cars  was  the  most  difficult  part  of  driving,  while electric  vehicles  did not  require gear  changes.  While  steam-powered cars  also  had  no  gear  shifting, they  suffered  from  long  start-up times  of  up to 45 minutes  on  cold  mornings. 

The  steam  cars  had  less range before needing  water  than  an  electric’s  range on  a single charge.  The only  good roads  of  the period were in town,  causing  most  travel  to  be local  commuting,  a perfect  situation  for  electric vehicles,  since their  range was  limited.  The electric  vehicle was  the  preferred choice  of  many because it  did not  require the  manual  effort  to  start,  as  with the  hand  crank  on gasoline  vehicles,  and there was no wrestling with a gear shifter. While  basic  electric  cars  cost  under  $1,000,  most  early  electric  vehicles  were ornate,  massive carriages  designed for  the upper  class.  They  had fancy  interiors,  with  expensive  materials,  and averaged $3,000  by  1910.  Electric  vehicles  enjoyed success  into the  1920s  with production  peaking in 1912.

The decline  of  the  electric  vehicle was  brought  about  by  several  major  developments: 
  • •  By the 1920s,  America  had  a  better  system  of  roads  that  now connected  cities,  bringing  with it  the need  for  longer-range vehicles. 
  • •  The discovery  of  Texas  crude  oil  reduced the  price of  gasoline so that  it  was  affordable to  the  average consumer. 
  • •  The invention of  the electric  starter  by  Charles  Kettering  in 1912 eliminated the  need for  the hand  crank. 
  • •  The  initiation of  mass  production of  internal  combustion  engine vehicles  by  Henry  Ford  made  these vehicles  widely  available and affordable  in  the $500 to $1,000 price  range.  By  contrast, the  price of  the  less  efficiently  produced electric  vehicles continued to  rise.  In 1912,  an electric  roadster  sold  for  $1,750, while a gasoline car sold for $650.

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