When I began my research on the history of EVs, I was familiar with a few EV models and hybrid vehicles, and golf carts, of course. I also watched the 2006 movie Who Killed the Electric Car? About a group of people who were selected as test “owners” for General Motors’ limited production electric car, the EV1. They produced the EV1 from 1996-1999.
The test group, consisting of many notable Hollywood names, fell in love with the fast, quiet cars, and felt that they were on the cutting edge of a new wave in automotive technology that would help save the planet from global warming. But GM abruptly changed course about offering the EV1 for sale to the public, and the company refused to allow their test owners to actually purchase the cars, despite their strong interest in doing so. Around that time, the SUV was becoming one of the most profitable vehicles types ever produced, and gas prices hadn’t yet reached the stratospheric levels of the 21st century, remaining stable at under $2 a gallon in most of the country. The EV1 didn’t have a chance. Gas guzzling V8s were back in style.
GM reclaimed all the EV1s and crushed them for scrap.
Believe it or not, the first EV ever sold to the public, the Electrobat Automobile, hit the roads way back in 1894. Built by trolley makers Pedro Salom and Henry Morris, their patented design used adaptations of the battery technology the duo used to build boats, street cars, and cabs.
When first rolled out, the Electrobat was cumbersome and slow like a trolley car because it sported steel “tires” and carried almost 3/4 ton of batteries! Later models utilized air-filled (pneumatic) tires and lighter construction materials. By 1896, the rear-steer carriages used two small motors to move at a top speed of 20 mph with a 25-mile range. The line would grow to over 17 different models.
Before the Electrobat debut, Morris and Salom built a few electric cabs to compete with the horse-drawn carriages then serving major cities. After their launch, they sold the business to an individual who formed the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) in New Jersey, who brought in high-dollar investors to expand operations. By the early 1900s, they had more than 600 electric cabs operating in New York with smaller fleets in other eastern cities. The biggest issue facing the cab company was having enough charged batteries to keep the fleet operational during times of high demand. Then, as now, downtime cost money, so EVC repurposed an ice arena into a recharged battery hub where a cab could drive in, switch the spent batteries with a fresh set, and be back in service.
Despite great potential, they tried to grow too fast too soon, and with the added stressors of partner-investor squabbles, the whole venture went belly up by 1907.
But their battery supplier, which also was an investor in the cab business, became the company known today as Exide. They approached bicycle and gasoline-powered car pioneer Colonel Albert Pope with a proposal to produce a line of EVs for sale to the general public. Named Columbia, after a successful line of Pope bicycles, the line reached the 1000-units-built milestone long before Ransom Olds and Henry Ford geared up their assembly lines in Detroit.
The first United States President to ride in an automobile was William McKinley when he took a private ride in a Stanley Steamer. After he was shot while touring an exhibit at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY, in 1901, he became the first US President to ride in an electric ambulance. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, took the first public ride in an automobile when he took a ride in a Columbia electric car in 1902.
Though electric vehicles remained popular through the late 1800s and early 1900s, the internal combustion engine would soon be king. It was reported that even Mrs. Henry Ford drove a Detroit Electric vehicle because she found the Model T too noisy and dirty for her tastes. The development of the electric starter for the 1912 Cadillac was a game changer because it replaced the hand-crank starter when adopted throughout the industry.
As Olds and Ford began mass-production of their vehicles on assembly lines, their vehicles became affordable to more than just the upper crust of society. The more expensive electric vehicles just could not compete with the new internal combustion models. Though they had an upsurge in demand during World War I, when gasoline supplies often were unreliable or subject to rationing, by World War II, most electric car manufacturers had converted production to gasoline-powered engines or had closed their doors.
But that doesn’t mean interest and research into EV technology died. In fact, electric cars worked so well in urban areas that many governments kept fleets for taxis, milk and postal deliveries, even ambulances. Serious attempts at newer, faster EVs happened in the late 1950s Electric Cab Columbia Electric and 1960s, when the Henney Kilowatt (built in consultation with CalTech scientists and engineers) debuted in 1959 with a speed controlled, 36-volt system that could go 40 miles at up to 40 mph. The 1960 model was upgraded to a 72-volt system with a 60-mile range with a top speed of 60 mph.
General Motors also kept developing electric cars and introduced the Corvair-based Electrovair series in 1964. That year’s model was a disappointment, so they scrapped it and went back to the drawing board. The 1966 Electrovair II carried 532-volt system in its nose feeding a 115 horsepower AC induction drive motor. Though 800 pounds heavier than the internal combustion Corvair, the EII had a 40-80 mile range and a top speed of 80 mph! However, only one was ever built, and it’s on display at the General Motors Heritage Center. Why build only one? Because the silver-zinc batteries they used wore out after 100 recharges, and the battery pack cost $160,000! In 1966! (That would be almost $1.2 million today.) They also toyed with hydrogen fuel cell technology in their 1966 160 kW ElectroVan. But it, sadly, also never made it past the experimental phase.
In 1967, GE got into the game with this hideous little entry that looks to be a cross between a hearse and a kitchen appliance shipping box. The Delta experimental electric vehicle is not what one could call a study in aerodynamic design. It utilized nickel-iron batteries to get a 40-mile range with 55 mph top speed. Ford also debuted an electric car with nickel-cadmium batteries, but found that these batteries, though more expensive to produce, added little to the range or performance of its experimental effort.
Then NASA got into the picture. They needed vehicles for exploring the lunar surface, so they turned to Boeing to produce a “car” that was light enough to transport in a space module yet durable enough to be driven on the moon.
Four Lunar Roving Vehicles (LVRs) were built (at a 100% cost overrun) for $6.5 million each. They were built out of aluminum tubes and were foldable for storage on board the Apollo lunar lander. Using silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries with a stated capacity of 121 amp-hours, the LVRs weighed 460 pounds without passengers. The astronauts’ space suits required a redesign so that they could sit in the vehicles, which were driven nine times over three lunar missions, beginning with Apollo 15 in 1971. Though the LVRs could go at a top speed of 8 mph, the lunar surface dictated how fast they could actually go. On the last lunar mission (Apollo 17) the LVR logged 22 miles and carried the astronauts nearly 5 miles away from their landing site.
Electric vehicles started looking better during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, when the price of a barrel of oil quadrupled nearly overnight. GM planners were projecting that gas would cost $2.50 a gallon by 1980 (about $4.50 today.) Automakers experimenting with electric car technologies now had advances developed for NASA projects to draw from and ever-lighter materials became available
The CitiCar, barely more than a glorified golf cart, was made by Sebring-Vanguard in Sebring, Florida. It produced enough cars by 1976 to earn the company the distinction of being the #6 car maker in the U.S. with over 2,300 made. It had a 6 HP motor, and carried the battery pack in place of the back seat. This experiment in minimalist design ceased production in 1977.
Commuter Vehicles, Inc. purchased the CityCar design, upgraded it and began production on an estimated 2,100+ Comuta-Cars and Vans in 1979.
All told, about 4,500 “C-cars” of various models were produced, giving it the record for most street-legal post-war electric vehicles made in the U.S. They held that record until the Tesla Model S smashed that record in 2013.
As you can see, electric vehicles have been around since before the big names in the auto industry made the internal combustion vehicle ubiquitous. But today’s versions have technology that the early makers could only dream of. We now have an all-electric semi truck developed by Mercedes, and a Tesla that can go from 0 to 60 in under 3 seconds. There is also now a racing circuit specifically for electric vehicles, for those with a need for excessive speed. So, I decided to test drive the best-selling EV in the United States, the Nissan Leaf, and I must say, I was surprised by what I discovered. Check out my full review elsewhere on MotorQueen.
If EVs aren’t here to stay, it will be a huge surprise to me. Elon Musk at Tesla has nearly completed enough charging stations to go from coast to coast, so the infrastructure is being tooled up. Even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, or are not a believer in human-caused climate change, you will want to own an EV because they are a lot of fun to drive. And a German polymer manufacturer is working on putting photovoltaic cells into auto body paint, so the days of solar-powered vehicles is just around the corner. They are already adding solar cells into sunroofs and other vehicle glass, so that you soon will be able to keep the AC or heat in your car running while you go into the grocery just from power generation from your sunroof or windshield. Universities already compete in races of their solar-powered designs, helping to move the industry forward.
The future of transportation is limited only by the depths of human imagination, and that’s a very good thing. I doubt we’ll ever get to the type of vehicle you can fold up into a briefcase a la George Jetson from the cartoon series of the 1960s, but I’d wager we’ll get darn close.
Think you’ll miss those wallet-draining trips to the gas station, or the smog produced by millions of gas-fueled engines in too small a space? I know I won’t.