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Some EV History

Last updated 2009.11.13

Introduction | Acknowledgements | Other Sources of EV History Information
Your Information Is Invited | Why are there so few electric cars?

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Introduction and Disclaimer

The following is a history of some of the makes, marques and movers in the history of on-road EVs. It is not intended to be as complete as some published works on the subject, and it is the result of my knowledge and researches, and those of others who have provided information to me. While it does not have the advantage of a publishing house's resources, it does have the advantage of being easily updated as more information becomes available. Contributions and corrections are welcomed. While the information presented here is correct to the best of my knowledge, I cannot accept any responsibility for any incorrect information that may appear here. I hope it will be found helpful to those interested in EVs and what has gone before. While the main topic is on-road EVs, I reserve the right to stray off-topic as the mood strikes me. This document and its links are definitely a work in progress, as is the whole field of on-road EV development and acceptance. Many of the headings do not yet have text or other material to accompany them, which serve as reminders of how much is left to be done here.

For information on current electric and hybrid vehicles, check out the HybridCARS Web site.

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Much of the information presented here comes from notes and literature I have collected in over 25 years. Regrettably, I have not always kept proper citations for all the things I have jotted down. Much of the information on vehicles from the late 1800's and early 1900's, and specifically in identifying that certain vehicles from that period even existed, came from G.N. Georgano's works on automotive history. Dr. Fred Green has also amassed considerable volumes of material about EVs and has never hesitated in sharing these with me. The late Mr. Bob Wing has also shared photos and other material with me. Mr. W. Zablosky has also been generous in sharing material from his personal archives.

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Other Sources of EV History Information

There are other sources of information on the topic of the history of electric vehicles.

On the Internet, check out
Galen Handy's Web site regarding the early makers of electric cars. A thing of beauty.
[Link has bit-rotted:] Paul A. Hughes' "A History of Early Electric Cars"
the Ipswich Transport Museum website, which has images and information about several electric cars and trucks in their collection,
[Site no longer exists:] Noel's EV Site - History Page,
the Stanford University EV Online Project sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation,
EAA EV History (at,'s electric car history page (inventors), and
McLellan's Automotive sells historical automotive literature (ads, manuals), and have put up a page of their electric vehicle materials.
The electric car history page (sorry if the link doesn't work, this page has moved frequently in the past, and images are often "broken").
[Site no longer exists:] York Technical College's EV Museum page.
A history of electric vehicles (1880-1990), in French.
Austrian Museum EV Holdings (text in German).

If you are interested in electric trolleybuses, a subject I do not cover in any depth, check out Richard C. DeArmond's Electric Trolleybus Hompage and
David Wyatt's Alltime List of North American Trolleybus Systems page.
You should also make a point of visiting the Halton County Radial Railway Museum near Milton, ON, which has working models of electric streetcars, commuter trains (radials), trams and trolley cars.

There are also books such as:
"Taking Charge - The Electric Automobile in America" by Michael Brian Schiffer (1994 -ISBN 1-56098-355-8). If you are only going to read one book about the history of electric vehicles, I would like it to be this one. This book focuses on the historical context (technological, infrastructure, social and business), that explains why the electric vehicle failed to keep pace with the gasoline engine. There is no single, simple reason, but it was not because the electric vehicle had an inferior technology or because of the electric starter.
"The Complete Book of Electric Vehicles" by Sheldon R. Shacket (1981 - ISBN 0-89196-086-4). This book provides a very sketchy history of electric vehicles prior to the 1970's, but a fairly comprehensive review of the electric vehicles of the 1970's, particularly in North America, devoting 95 of the 224 pages of the book to this topic. Unfortunately, this leaves the book feeling rather dated some 16 years later. Still, there is also good coverage of basic fundamentals, and on the whole, it is still worth reading.
"History of the Electric Automobile: Battery-Only Powered Cars " by Ernest H. Wakefield, PhD., (1994 - ISBN 1-56091-299-5; also SAE R-122). This is a very scholarly and complete volume on the subject. Expensive, and possibly hard to find, but a must for the serious student of EV history around the planet.
"History of the Electric Automobile: Hybrid Electric Vehicles" by Ernest H. Wakefield, PhD, (1998 - ISBN 0-7680-0125-0, also SAE R-187). Expensive and very hard to find. Much lighter than the previous volume, and a considerable amount of the book is devoted to the topic of solar-electric cars.
"The Lost Cord" by Barbara E. Taylor (1995 - ISBN 1-57074-295-2). This book has some general history on EVs, primarily in North America, but the focus is on the story of Bob Beaumont and the CitiCar.
"The Car That Could" by Michael Shnayerson (1996 - ISBN 0-679-42105-X). This is an inside view of the development of the GM EV-1, which ends as the car is being prepared for production and lease to end-users. Strong focus on the people and events that shaped the environment for the development of the EV-1.
"Electric Vehicles" by Nick Georgano (also known as G.N. Georgano - G.N. for George Nicolas) (1996 - ISBN 0-7478-0316-1). This book is a disappointment for the price (about US$40 for just 32 pages - more than a dollar per page) and coming from the author of "The New Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars, 1885-Present" published in 1982. Focus is on British and European vehicles, almost a pamphlet for the Beaulieu collection.
"World Guide to Battery-Powered Road Transportation" published by McGraw-Hill (1980 - ISBN 0-07-010790-4). A good snapshot of the electric vehicles available internationally in the late 1970's, primarily in response to the first OPEC oil shock.

More general books on the subject of automobiles yield occasional gems.
"The Worlds Automobiles, 1880-1955" by G.R. Doyle.

Some museums have electric vehicles in their collections, and their curators may have additional materials at their disposal related to electric vehicle history.
The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles has a number of EVs in their collection, not all of which are on display.
The Canadian National Museum of Science and Technology has several EVs in their holdings, though there is seldom more than one on display.

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Your Information Is Invited

If you see something that you feel is incorrect, or don't see something you think should be here, please send me a note. I will be happy to look into such things and make corrections and additions.

I am currently looking for information on:
- an electric delivery truck used by Morrison-Lamothe Bakery of Ottawa ON, probably in the late 1950's or early 1960's
- a report of two electric limousines used in Ottawa in the 1920's - one apparently owned by a female doctor with her office on Metcalfe St. - the other belonging to a family living on MacLaren St. Both were described as black with brass trim, velvet upholstery and flower vases.
- what type of electric buses were used on Roosevelt Island beginning the mid-1970's?
- what type of electric bus was used by Consolidated Edison in the 1970's as an employee shuttle?

but information on any on-road electric vehicles is always welcome.

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Why Are There So Few Electric Cars?

Any examination of the history of the EV inevitably asks the question, "Why were they overtaken in popularity by gasoline-powered vehicles?" Let me take a few paragraphs to give you my opinion as to why electric vehicles have lost the war of numbers to their petrol-powered cousins and get this question out of the way. There is no one simple answer, but many facts contributed to the rise of the internal combustion engine and decline of the electric motor for the primacy of driving on-road transportation. These points are interesting, because most of the real reasons the electric's popularity fell are no longer valid. Furthermore, on-road electric vehicles have been far more common than one might imagine from the footnote status to which they have been relegated from automotive writers weaned on gasoline. Electric propulsion has also remained a significant factor in many aspects of transportation other than on-road automobiles and trucks. The information provided later in this document is far from complete, but is indicative of some of the EVs that have served their functions well.

Roads at the end of the 1800's and into the early 1900's were poor, often no more than cartpaths, which is why virtually all vehicles of the period shared the same high, narrow wheels of the horse-drawn vehicles which were the main users of those "roads". Without drainage or roadbeds, spring thaws or even moderate rains were enough to turn these rutted pathways into muddy sinkholes. Electric cars, with their heavy loads of batteries, were at a distinct disadvantage in these situations which required being pulled, lifted and pried out of these sinkholes.

Access to proper charging facilities was not something to be taken for granted. While many urban areas were beginning to install an electrical infrastructure in the late 1800's and early 1900's, often primarily to replace gas street lamps with electric street lamps to save on the labour associated with lamp-lighters, electricity in the home, and even in businesses, was not the common utility it is today. In general, only the well-to-do could afford to have their residences wired. Electrical generation facilities were not standardized; some produced direct current (DC) favoured by Edison; others produced alternating current (AC) promoted by Westinghouse and Tesla - with AC the eventual winner as the electrical grid became standardized. Even within the DC camp, there was no standard voltage and the AC generators did not have a common frequency. Rectification from AC to DC was not common, with rotary converters (an AC motor connected to a DC generator) being more common even than mercury arc rectifiers. So just because you had an electric car and access to a generating facility, did not mean you could just plug in and recharge. Signficant rural electrification did not even begin until the 1930's in the U.S. and later in Canada. Before you dismiss this as a minor issue, remember that the majority of the population before 1945 in North America was rural. The move to urban centres and suburbia is a post-war phenomenon. Trips in rural areas are typically longer than in urban areas. It seems ironic that as more of us moved to urban areas in the 20th century, we gave up on an ideal urban transportation technology (battery-electric cars) in favour of one better suited for touring in the countryside (the gasoline powered internal-combustion engined touring car).

Electricity was expensive and gasoline was cheap. At the start of the 20th century, electricity generally cost over 20 cents (U.S.) per kwh, and could be as high as 40 cents. Gasoline could be had for 5 cents a gallon. In 1999 in Canada, electricity costs 10 cents (CDN) per kwh (about 25% of its price a century ago) and gasoline is 70 cents per litre - more than $2.00 per gallon (50 times its price a century ago).

Gasoline powered vehicles, while noisy and known to produce toxic emissions, were considered a step up environmentally and in community health from the prime competition in transportation of the time - the horse. Horse droppings were a major urban blight and public health concern. They stank when fresh; attracted disease-carrying flies; created a fine dust when dry that caused respiratory problems and eye irritation; and produced a slick, slippery, stinky ooze when wetted down again by rain. The gasoline powered car was recognized as imperfect even it its early days. Popular Science reported in 1900 that while gasoline cars ran well, they were "noisy, and the odor of gasoline is disagreeable as well." Still, they were such a step up from the by-products of widespread use of horses, that the marginal additional advantage of the electric drive systems was not seen as signficant. Smog was unknown. Environmental awareness as we know it today was non-existent.

More important for the acceptance of gasoline-powered vehicles was the appearance of the required infrastructure - gasoline stations. Before 1898, finding gasoline for a car was an adventure in itself. By 1905, many general stores, carriage shops, smithies and even liveries were keeping large cans of gasoline on-hand to fuel the few gasoline cars that came by. Business in gasoline was not brisk initially, but it was lucrative - those that could afford the cars could afford to pay a premium for the gasoline. In 1905, 86% of the cars sold in the U.S. were powered by gasoline ; electric and steam held about 7% each. This is eight years before the electric starter was available on any gasoline-powered car. By 1914, half the cars in North America were Model T's, which had started production just six years earlier. By 1920, the gasoline pumps were evident throughout North America, before electrification became a national initiative in Canada or the United States, and long before the standardized and interconnected electrical grid that we take for granted today was in place. According to [site no longer exists:] Chevron, they built the first gasoline station in the U.S. in 1913, which started a boom in the building of these facilities until they were ubiquitous throughout the U.S. by 1920. In 1916 alone, over 200 petroleum companies were established in the U.S., which coincides neatly with the decline of the electric car.

Electrical recharging facilities were not nearly as common. Many "service stations" would not have had access to an electrical grid at the turn of the century. Even if they did, the electric cars did not use standard voltages, which made it expensive to buy the equipment to recharge cars of different voltages.

The automotive industry of the late 20th century, without the correct historical perspective, try to convince us that the demise of the electric comes down to three simple issues: the limited range of battery powered vehicles; the low speed of electric vehicles; and, the availability of the electric starter on internal combustion engines.

The range issue is largely a matter of perception. Early in the 20th century, electric cars were the range champions. A B.G.S. electric car had established a one-charge range of 180 miles in 1899 in France. Common production electric cars could easily travel upwards of 40 miles between charges, and upwards of 100 miles a day with the proper infrastructure in place. A horse and wagon would have to stop about every 10 to 12 miles for rest and water in the same distance, a journey that would typically take about 2 hours. A steam car was generally limited to 10 to 15 miles before having to stop for water (usually at a horse trough), and perhaps four times that distance before stopping for fuel. The early gasoline cars also had to stop frequently to add water for engine cooling, and also took advantage of horse watering troughs (where they were allowed to do so - the noisy cars often frightened the horses). This was not seen as a major disadvantage for the gasoline cars of the time, they were generally in need of some minor repair or adjustment after 20 miles of travel. Having built several million of them since then, the automotive industry has improved reliability in the intervening 80 or 90 years.

The average car in North America in the 1990's is driven less than 19,000 kilometres (12,000 miles) per year. This comes out to an average of about 50 kilometres (32 miles) per day, well within the capabilities of the average do-it-yourself conversion using lead-acid batteries. Many cars, especially second or third vehicles in a household used primarily for commuting travel even less. Many of these vehicles could be replaced by electric cars using current, off-the-shelf and economical technology. Hybrid technologies can resolve the range issue for any driving pattern in the short-term, and advances in battery technology, charging facilities and fuel cells will resolve the matter in the longer term. Advanced batteries (e.g. nickel-metal-hydride) have taken electric cars to one-charge ranges over 400 miles in recent years. Other technologies (e.g. lithium polymer) may do better still.

Electric cars were just as fast as the gasoline cars of the period. Electric cars held the world land speed records from 1898 to 1902, beating out steam and gasoline-powered vehicles. (When the record was taken away from the electrics in 1902, it was not by a gasoline-powered car, but by a steamer.) In the early 1990's, one automotive executive from Ford ridiculed the 1912 Baker Electric for having a top speed of 35 mph, conveniently forgetting that the Model T of the same vintage could not go any faster - and the Model T had to back up many hills because its gravity-fed fuel system would fail if the rear-mounted fuel-tank ended up lower than the engine while climbing the hill while going forward. The Jenatzy achieved an officially recorded speed of 106 km/h (about 66 mph) in 1899.

The advent of the electric starter made it safer and easier to start an internal combustion engine. The conventional automotive industry would have us believe this one single technical advance dealt the death blow to electric cars. In fact, the electric car had been eclipsed before the electric starter was generally available on gasoline cars. Charles Kettering is generally credited with the invention of the electric starter, which was first available on the 1913 Cadillac. Some writers have indicated that 1912 was the zenith year for electric cars in North America, the year in which the greatest number of electric on-road vehicles were registered. This over-simplification is used as justification for linking the demise of the electric car to the electric starter on gasoline cars. The number of electric cars actually sold in 1912 was only a fraction of the number of gasoline cars sold that same year - the registration figures were an artifact of the number of electrics sold in previous years. In reality, the electric starter only became commonly available in the 1920's. The car that truly put gasoline engines on the road in mass numbers was the Ford Model T, which did not have an electric starter. Realistically, the electric vehicle was already well on its way to footnote status as on-road transportation in North America before the electric starter on gasoline engines was a significant factor.

So what did in the electric car? Most importantly, cheap and readily available gasoline as opposed to expensive electricity and a fragmented electrical generating industry and distribution network. Gasoline was effectively a waste product of the petroleum industry at the turn of the 20th century - it was often burned off at the well-head to get to the desired product - kerosene for lamps. Poor roads which put the heavier electrics at a disadvantage. Finally, the decision by Henry Ford to base the first mass-produced and priced for the masses vehicle on the gasoline engine instead of electric drive (apparently after discussions with Thomas Edison). Today, the situation has changed: electricity is cheap relative to gasoline; the road system handles relatively heavier vehicles (e.g. 3-ton SUVs and 9-ton tractor transports) without difficulty; and smog is killing people.

Another theory regarding the demise of the electric car in the early 20th century concerns the Electric Car Company, the Selden patent, greed and poor judgement. This is covered in an article titled The Electric Vehicle Company: A Monopoly That Missed by John B. Rae.

A correspondent has suggested to me that the technical advance which made the internal combustion engine a success was not the electric starter, but the radiator. Apparently, before this means of cooling these engines was developed, the heat-producing machines could only run for a matter of minutes before the heat build-up caused damage to the engine. (Another student of the early gasoline era suggests that early internal combustion cars probably didn't get that far very often without need of a repair or adjustment that would require stopping the car anyway.) Ironically, and in complete opposition to the perception today, in early days of the 20th century, electric cars were the distance champions between stops, as the steamers had to stop for water and the gasoline buggies had to stop to cool down. In fact, both the gasoline engines and the steamers were dependent on the existing infrastructure to be viable at all - horse-watering troughs - to supply the water for the boilers on the steamers and to cool the heat engines.

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