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In the early days of the automobile, electric cars were more common than gas ones. So, why did they die out? And what’s brought them back today? 

Gas, Steam, or Electricity

Electric Studebaker - guides.loc.gov
Electric Studebaker - guides.loc.gov

Without following the twists and turns of history, our view of things can take on a teleological tint (that is, that the progression of history moves toward a fixed future goal). This is certainly true when we look back to the early days of the car, that most ubiquitous and democratizing form of personal transportation. Looking at the modern automobile, we might imagine internal combustion as the most logical, most efficient, and most convenient form of mechanical propulsion possible. A historical inevitability. 

Yet history is a contingent and chaotic story filled with long shots, near misses, and coincidences. The history of the automobile is no different. When we go back to the early days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries we find a technological revolution underway that could have produced any number of different worlds. Though internal combustion became the dominant form of stored energy used in cars, there were other candidates. In fact, in the early 20th century you could not be faulted for assuming it would be steam powered cars or electric cars, and not gas cars, that would come to dominate the world’s roads over the coming decades.

The First Electric Cars

Thomas Edison with his first electric car - scotsman.com
Thomas Edison with his first electric car - scotsman.com

The first electrically powered personal transportation dates back to the early 19th century. Pinning an absolute date has proven difficult as numerous inventors from the UK, US, Germany, Hungary, and the Netherlands were at work in the 1830s. Credit is often given to Robert Anderson of Aberdeen, Scotland, who built a battery powered vehicle in 1832, later presenting it at an exhibition in 1835. The three wheeled vehicle features primary power cells for batteries, designed for single charge usage. It would take sixty more years before rechargeable batteries were invented, making electric cars a viable alternative to steam or gas.

The late 1880s through the 1910s was the age of automobile startups. Cars were exotic luxury items. The playthings of the rich and famous. And, if you were rich or ambitious, you started your own car company. Hundreds of automobile makers blinked in and quickly out of existence. There was no industry consensus on what the best propulsion system was. As late as the turn of the 20th century, the most common automobile, some 40 percent, used steam, with the boiler heated with a small amount of gasoline. Electric cars came in second in popularity with gas cars a distant third.

William Morrison electric carriage - AeroVironment on facebook.com
William Morrison electric carriage - AeroVironment on facebook.com

William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa patented his electric carriage in 1890. This early electric car had 24 battery cells producing 4 horsepower and could hit up to 20 mph and achieve a range of 50 miles. Records indicate that Morris first displayed his electric car in a local parade in 1888, the same year Karl Benz patented his internal combustion engine car.

EVs Become Big Business

Electric cab fleet from London Electrical Company - voltagehire.com
Electric cab fleet from London Electrical Company - voltagehire.com

It did not take long for electric cars to turn from novelty to commercially viable. The first electric cab fleet, owned by the London Electrical Company, was deployed in the UK in 1897. Across the Atlantic, New York City, always seeking the cutting-edge, got its own electric cabs that same year, fielded by companies like the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company and the Electric Vehicle Company. The latter used a series of battery swapping stations to get around the long charging times.

Electric cars from companies like Baker Electric, Detroit Electric, and Milburn, were marketed to the public, or at least those who had the money to purchase an electric car. Electric cars were often pitched as the feminine alternative (smooth, quiet, and simple to use) to the coarse internal combustion car or the dangerous and complicated steam car. Eli Olds, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, Thomas Edison, and Studebaker all experimented with electric car designs.

Electric taxi in New York City - upsbatterycenter.com
Electric taxi in New York City - upsbatterycenter.com

As nice as electric cars of the time were, they also had their limitations. The battery technology of the day meant long charging times and limited range. Electric cars were also much more expensive than equivalent gas-powered cars.

(Random bits of presidential history vis-a-vi electric cars. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to take a public ride in an electric car, a Columbia in 1902. However, it was President William McKinley who was the first president to ride in one when he was rushed to the hospital in an electric ambulance after he was shot at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York in 1901.)

Gas Wins (?) the Propulsion Battle

1912 Cadillac Model 30 - rmsothebys.com
1912 Cadillac Model 30 - rmsothebys.com

Internal combustion cars had been making steady technological advancements in the early 20th century. Engines got quieter and smoother. Expanding oil exploration was making gasoline increasingly affordable. And the electric starter, first deployed in the Cadillac Model Thirty in 1912, replaced the cumbersome and dangerous hand crank for starting cars. The wild success of Henry Ford’s Model T was the final and most significant factor in the obsolescence of those early electric cars.

Though GM experimented with EV technology in the 1970s and later released the EV1 electric car in the early 1990s, it was not until the 21st century that electric cars would see a true renaissance. Beginning with the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius in 1999 and 2000 respectively, electric-gas hybrids arrived on the market. Slow and odd looking, these early hybrids might have reduced exhaust and improved gas mileage, but their nerdy, tree-hugging reputations left wider public appeal unrealized.

EVs Get Cool

2008 Tesla Roadster - netcarshow.com
2008 Tesla Roadster - netcarshow.com

Tesla’s Roadster arrived in 2008. The Roadster, basically a Lotus Elise with a battery pack and electric motors, made electric cars cool. Not only was the Tesla Roadster the first electric car to offer a 200-mile range, it was fast (3.9 seconds from zero to sixty mph) and looked great (thanks Lotus!).

2022 has been an interesting year for electric vehicles. Public interest has spiked (along with gas prices) and manufacturers have struggled to meet the growing demand. Electrified vehicles, both EVs and hybrids now account for nearly 13 percent of new cars sales, up 40 percent from just a year ago. Meanwhile, manufacturers, including GM, Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen to name just a few, are pouring billions into electrifying their vehicle lineups over the coming decade-plus.

2023 Cadillac Lyriq - netcarshow.com
2023 Cadillac Lyriq - netcarshow.com

Are the days of the gas-powered car numbered? Perhaps. However, any such transition will be titanic in scale, herculean in effort, and not without its controversies. So, while gas-powered cars will be with us for decades to come, electric cars are poised to reclaim their position as a common, viable alternative.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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