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Car Feature: A Brief History of Electric Vehicles

An early electric car. Photo via StrangeFarmer.

Most of us think that the electric car is a thing of the present with cars like the Tesla Model X, Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf. What most people do not know is that the electric car predates the early gas powered cars. Now, we have come full circle where electric vehicles are the in thing again after a century of being dominated by petrol automobiles.Vintage electric cars (1)

Flocken Elektrowagen, 1888 (reconstruction, 2011). Wikipedia

The early history of the electric car is a bit sketchy but one notable person of interest was Thomas Davenport. In 1934, Davenport invented an electric motor by using an electromagnet he bought. The invention was patented and he used the motor to power a small model car. The components to build electric motors were expensive at the time and it was not very practical.

The invention of the lead-acid batteries in 1859 by Gaston Plante helped revolutionise the electric car. The battery was further improved and manufactured in mass quantities.

With the invention of the batteries, the first true electric vehicles were born.

In the 1867 World Exposition, Austrian inventor Franz Kravogl unveiled a two-wheeled cycle powered by an electric motor. Unfortunately for Kravogl, his invention could not be safely driven down streets. Another inventor by the name of Gustave Trouve created a three-wheel electric vehicle in 1881.

Vintage electric cars (6)

Electric car built by Thomas Parker, photo from 1895. Wikipedia

It was in 1884 when English inventor Thomas Parker that made the first production electric vehicle. Thomas Parker was interested in making fuel efficient transportation led to the invention. The electric vehicle looked more like a horse drawn carriage but was powered by an electric motor. This electric vehicle predates the historical journey of Bertha Benz in the first internal combustion car by two years. Thomas Parker along with Paul Bedford Elwell founded the Elwell-Parker Company and went on the business of producing electric cars and trams for the city of London. The company even made electric dog carts.

There was huge interest in electric vehicles all over the world as they were easier to operate than petrol engines of the time. They also didn’t have the exhaust fumes and vibration of gas powered engines and also didn’t need gears and shifters. The electric car was also easier to start as petrol engines used hand cranks to fire up. The limited range, refuelling time (charging) and top speed was the major disadvantage of the electric car.

Vintage electric cars (4)

Thomas Edison and an electric car in 1913 (courtesy of the National Museum of American History). Wikipedia.

The decline of the electric car started when there were massive road expansions. With more roads, people wanted to travel further and faster than before. The disadvantages of the early electric cars were its downfall. Gasoline became a lot cheaper too with the discovery of large oil fields. This meant that it was more practical to travel in petrol powered cars than electric ones. Electric cars simply didn’t have the range to compete with gasoline cars.

The early electric car manufacturers stopped making cars in the 1910s. It was also at this time that Henry Ford’s mass production Model T took over much of the market share that the electric cars left behind.

Up until recently, the electric vehicles were no match for petrol cars. But with technological improvements not only in the motor but also the batteries and the quest to lower carbon emissions, the electric car has made a comeback. Now, the electric car is in fashion once again. Electric cars now have the range and even the speed to match conventional gas powered cars. The current fastest accelerating production car is an electric car in the form of the Tesla Model S P100D.

Who knew that we would come back to electric cars once again? Perhaps soon we will even see electric cars without drivers. It is safe to say that the electric car is back and hopefully, this time, it will stay for good.

Jonno Rodd

Jonno is the hype-man for some of Australia's most rad brands. His passion for adventure, new tech, and off-roading, means there is no really automotive topic beyond Jonno's interest.

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