- Edison Had a Tesla Back in the Day...Sort Of

The history of the electric car

Spoiler Alert: It's Older Than You Think

7w ago
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Lets be honest with ourselves here, electrification is inevitable in the automotive world. Motoring purists may scoff at the idea of petrol-power becoming obsolete and replaced by something that doesn't even make noise when it accelerates...but still does it so much better. The beloved Dodge Demon, with it's hellish supercharged V8, and a whole purpose to live life a quarter mile at a time, can hit 60 in a blistering 2.3 seconds! It truly is amazing to see the power behind this car. No other car in production can do wheelies from the factory. Dodge truly created a marvel of American Automotive engineering.

Meanwhile, Tesla makes a full size sedan that can outpace the two-door demon by .4 seconds. Think about that for a second. A full size sedan is out pacing a purpose built muscle car that was banned by the NHRA because of how fast it is...cannot beat a practical family car on it's own turf. That is the power of electricity.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the rumble of an ICE. Nothing beats feeling the heart of a car come to life and launch you down the road while managing the gears to keep the engine in it's power band. It's an intimate connection between man and machine, especially with a clutch involved; And electric cars cannot replicate that feeling. You know what they can do better though? Throw you back in the seat and make you scream expletives in surprise.

So the future is looking electric, but that is okay. Electric drivetrains have been around longer than most people realize. If you're worried about pedigree, electric has plenty. So without further ado, let's talk about the history of the future.

Gustave Trouve's Electric Tricycle, 1881

Gustave Trouve's Electric Tricycle, 1881

The French Spark

An important aspect of electric cars is the ability to be recharged, obviously. In 1859, the rechargeable lead-acid battery was invented by French physicist Gaston Plante, and his designed was further improved in 1881 by a French engineer by the name of Camille Faure, who enabled the mass production of lead-acid batteries.

That same year, Gustave Trouve threw one of these batteries into a three-wheeled carriage, along with a small electric motor, and drove it down the streets of Paris. Though this car is a far cry from a Tesla. Where a Tesla takes but a couple seconds to hit 60, this thing topped out at a neck breaking 2 miles per hour! Surely they will create a racing league for these performance machines...right?

The caveat of Trouve's car was that it could not be patented, because a steam powered variant of his tricycle existed, so he adapted it to marine use, and thus invented the outboard motor. Which, suffice to say is still a very relevant invention today.

The Flocken Electrowagen, 1888

The Flocken Electrowagen, 1888

Surging Production

Fast forward to 1888, just two years after Benz unveiled his gas powered Patent-Motorwagen, and the Flocken Elecktrowagen is put into production, which would lead the charge into a "golden age" for electric vehicles, if only they could see how far they have come today.

The Elektrowagen was in production until 1903, but there were plenty other popular models of Eduardian Teslas that were being produced as well, such English inventor Thomas Parker's car in 1895, though the only documentation of it left today is a photograph...

So what made these things so popular compared to their gas powered counterparts? Well they had a number of advantages, such as a comfier ride due to less vibration, no smelly fumes and instead of a loud bang from the motor, these early cars simply "hummed". They were also easier to start and did not require transmission management. Though they still had a limited range, so they were kept mostly to city driving.

In America, the electric car boom failed to take off due to infrastucture, but by 1912 most homes were wired for electricity, and a whopping 40% of all cars owned in the states were electric, compared to today's 2.3% ownership. But back then these manufacturers were still competing with horses so does that statistic really matter? Most of these electric vehicles were considered luxury cars.

Losing That Spark

By the 1920's, electric cars were starting to lose their thunder. Due to an improved road infrastructure, electric cars could simply not compete with the the range of an ICE. And along with the mass discovery of many petrol reserves, gasoline became super affordable. They were also considerably slower than their gas counterparts, and were massively restricted to city-cruising. Though electric cars as a whole were on their way out (for now) there were components of electric cars that made it into gas cars, such as the electric starter, which made ownership of these barbaric explosion-powered cars much more civilized to operate.

Eventually, the electric car became something of a niche market. Even the energy crisis (the same one that killed the Aerovette, read that next) couldn't convince people to buy electric. It would be a good few decades before they would be considered seriously by consumers again. But plenty of concepts were being made, such as the '76 Chevrolet Electrovette (no, it was not based on the Corvette) and the '97 Honda EV Plus. But again, at this point in time, electric cars were niche and considered impractical. Though the Lunar Rover was considered an electric car, so that's kinda cool, apparently gas and space don't mix.

The Electrovette...yikes.

The Electrovette...yikes.

NASA did it first, Elon

NASA did it first, Elon

Modern (EV)olution

By the mid-90's going green start to become seriously trendy, and auto-manufacturers wanted to help save the Earth too (or give us another reason to give them money) and pioneering modern electric cars would begin to make their debut. Perhaps the earliest example of a highway-capable electric car was the GM EV1, which had a range of 160 miles at the time, and made people think that maybe battery power could be as practical as gas one day. But if we're going to delve into the history of that car, I may as well start writing a new article. Let's finish this one first.

In the early 2000's a small company by the name of Tesla started, and by 2008 they had created an electric roadster that was a hit, and proved that electric cars could be fun, and stupid quick. Around this time Mitsubishi made an electric car as well, called the MiEV, which could have undone the reputation Tesla helped set up for electric cars, because of how lame and ugly it was. Luckily, we don't see that car much in the states. The spotlight is shining on Tesla here, for they lit the fuse that would ignite the modern electric renaissance that the automotive industry is currently going through.

The Beginning of Something Great (depending on who you ask)

The Beginning of Something Great (depending on who you ask)

The Great Surge

From 2012 on, electricity continued to make room for itself in the industry. Every manufacturer has taken a dive into battery power, some did it better than others, and now there is legislation towards ending sales of ICE powered cars. Range is no longer an issue, infrastructure is quickly being developed (even on off roading trails, thanks to Jeep) and some of these cars are admittedly way cooler than their ICE competitors. Does your CX-5 have speakers in the seats that can act as a whoopie cushion? Can your M3 hit sixty in under three seconds? Does Tony Stark drive a Mustang? All these questions can be answered with a simple no.

The truth is, batteries are here to stay. This is just the beginning for them. And while I love the rumble of an LS when I drive it irresponsibly, and rowing my own gears in the ever so crisp MX-5, I'm ready for the future. Are you?

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Comments (7)

  • I get so annoyed by people, mostly marketing types, trying go say the electric car is "new technology"- it's as old as the car itself. The first purpose-built car for the land speed record, the first car to top 100kmph, was electric.

      1 month ago
    • Well, the technology used today is certainly new technology

        1 month ago
  • Here is an article and pictures about early EV's in the 1900's.

    rarehistoricalphotos.com/electric-cars-history-pictures-1880-1920/

      1 month ago
  • I was driving a Peugeot 206 EV fleet vehicle at Coventry City Council back in 2004. Range - anything inside the ring road! Really did the job, parked up in the council depot overnight and juiced for another spot of planning inspections the next day. Never got over 30mph to be honest but was reliable and dependable, so much so, the senior leader I was ferrying around was heavily pregnant- I overdid a speed hump abs her waters broke in the car! Cue a dash to Walsgrave general hospital. Pleased I didn’t get the valet duties that night ….. that little one will be almost driving age now, really hoped they named it appropriately- as chances are all the mainstream cars when ready to buy their first will be EV!

      1 month ago
  • Very nice.

      1 month ago
  • Interesting to know that EVs are also a thing of the past. Looking to the future, electric and ICE will both be around long after we're gone. It's great now to have both to choose from.

      1 month ago
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