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Electric cars, the early years

Monday, October 4, 2010

Suddenly, in 2010, the electric car is the hot topic, in magazines, newspapers, and on television shows. It would seem that the "Age of Electric Automobiles" is just around the corner. Trouble is, that same excitement has surfaced periodically for the past almost 200 years, only to disappear as a distant memory -- until the next time.

At the time that the Gay '90s turned into the 20th century, those early days of the automobile, it appeared that electricity would be the power source of choice to make the new auto contraptions run. It was a clean, quiet source of energy, and since roads were not very good, people used their cars primarily in the city, for short trips around town, and everything was fine. For long trips train travel was already the accepted way (and very popular) mode of transportation. Speed was not a high priority, as long as the automobile moved along at the pace of a horse, or a little faster. Of the three power sources available in 1900 -- electricity, steam, and gasoline, electricity was by far the most popular. Electric cars outsold gas cars by 10 to 1 (steam cars about the same as gas).

The first electric powered vehicles had been built in the 1830s, in Europe by inventors in Scotland and Hungary, and in the USA, by a fellow named Thomas Davenport. Davenport's vehicles, really no more than toys for demonstration purposes, ran on crude batteries (non-rechargeable). (Note: It was not until 1859 that the French Physicist, Gaston Plante invented the first, lead-acid, rechargeable battery.)

Finally, in 1890, the American, William Morrison, built a sure enough, for real electric car, in Des Moines, Iowa. This car traveled, more or less dependably, at speeds of 14 mph. In 1897, a fleet of taxicabs was put on the streets of New York City, by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. of Philadelphia. By this time, men had begun to race their automobiles, and speed did matter. In 1899 a French electric car, "The Jeantaude" set a world land speed record (the world's first) with a speed of 57.6 mph.

By 1900, several companies were manufacturing electric cars. In the United States, the Studebaker Carriage Co., Ransom Olds, and Thomas Edison were some of the early builders of electric cars. There were a number of reasons people looked favorably on an electric vehicle. There was no vibration, no noise, no gear changing and no smell, as opposed to the gasoline- and steam-powered cars of the day. Perhaps, most importantly, there was no need to hand crank the electric car, as there was with the gas powered cars of the day. This one feature meant that women could use the automobile without cranking (a formidable chore even for men).

Since most of the early autos were really mechanized carriages, electric car manufacturers took pains to make their cars especially appealing to women. Interiors were roomy, and as beautifully upholstered as their living room furniture. Bud vases were supplied so that the ladies could adorn their vehicles with fresh flowers -- and the car was clean, without soot and gas fumes.

Apparently, this effort to make the electric car appealing to women went too far in some cases, and men shied away from those cars, as being too feminine. The Edison Co. addressed this problem in their cars by offering a "false radiator," which was added to the front of the vehicle. The radiator was not functional, but it appeared to be an internal combustion, gas driven car, to "salve the male ego."

Though electric cars were manufactured until the 1920s, they reached their peak production in 1912. It is perhaps no coincidence that the downturn of sales of electrics coincided with Charles Kettering's invention of the electric starter for gas cars in 1912. His invention took away the "no cranking" advantage that the electric cars had enjoyed over its gas and steam rivals -- that women had so appreciated. (Charles Kettering, founder of Delco Battery Co., was for 27 years the director of research for General Motors).

In 1946, when I was at the University in Lincoln, there were two older maiden ladies who regularly drove an elegant, Edison-type electric car from their home in the fashionable Piedmont area into downtown Lincoln, for shopping and tea at Miller & Paine Department Store.

They were always very well dressed, in the "long dress" style of the early '20s, and they always had fresh roses in their car bud vase -- very classy!

Electric cars were always more expensive than their gas and steam rivals., primarily because of the batteries, the most expensive part of the electric car. (This problem has yet to be solved in 2010.) In the early years of the century. a basic electric car cost about $1,000 ($20,000 today). The ornate models sold for more like $3,000. This was considerably more than the gas powered cars, and when Henry Ford brought the savings of an assembly line to his Model Ts, in the 1920s, the difference became too much to overcome -- $1,750 for the electric car vs $290 for the Model T. (The steam powered car, such as "The Stanley Steamer, died at this time as well.)

In the 1920s, roads improved greatly, making longer trips between cities via auto easier and more desirable. New oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma made gas easier to obtain, and cheaper.

But the electric car was saddled with the same old problems -- limited range, and lack of an infra-structure so that batteries could easily be re-charged. (Various methods were tried over the years, from exchange batteries at convenient locations, to home charging stations, but in 2010 that range for electric cars is still only 30-100 miles, with no convenient, quick, public charging stations.

The first wave of electric cars died in the 1920s, but interest was very strong again in the gas crisis of the '70s, with General Motors, Honda, Ford and other major auto manufacturers getting into the game. Some of these cars performed very well, but the movement was short-lived when gasoline prices became cheaper.

Now, in 2010, proponents of the electric car have been given new hope. Several companies have begun producing an all-electric, or a hybrid, which uses both an electric and an internal combustion engine -- which some think will be the intermediate step toward the production of an all-electric, plug-in automobile.

General Motors will soon be offering its Chevy "Volt," Nissan its "Leaf," Ford its "Focus," Daimler its "Smart Car" as all-electric choices. In addition, a number of companies are offering their proven hybrid models for sale.

Elon Musk, of the new Tesla Motor Co. has created some interest in his All-Electric "Tesla" Roadster, which sells for some $159,000.

He claims a breakthrough in the quality and dependability of his advanced battery packs, which he is offering to rival electric car manufacturers..

It is all very interesting. I guess we'll have to wait and see if this time is different.

Source: About.com: History of Electric Vehicles -- Wired, Oct. 2010

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By