The history of electric cars goes back a long way

There is, understandably, a lot of chatter going on now about electric cars. The COP26 summit is highlighting the importance of some major shifts in habits, and how we travel day-to-day is one. But although it seems like the focus on electric cars has reared up suddenly, that’s not actually the case. Did you know that electric cars have been around for over 130 years?!

Let that thought sink in… Electric cars have been rolling the roads for as long as their internal combustion engine siblings. If you ponder a bit longer, mind you, you realise it’s not as surprising as it initially seems. Electricity was a hot phenomenon in the late nineteenth century. Why not use it to propel people around? Back in those days, trips were short. The road system was not advanced, and journeys were mostly confined to the cities. Thus, catering for a quick nip across town made a lot of sense – much like it does today. Plus, even back then, electric vehicles were a popular idea because they were clean and easy to drive; they didn’t need gears!

With all this said, it is worth briefly noting that steam was also an alternative to fossil fuels. However, those sweaty beasts took ages to heat up for a journey; so not really that great if you’ve forgotten a pint of milk.

How it all started

To understand how the first electric car came into being, one has to consider how the key components came together.

First off, we must thank an engineer called Anyos Jedlik for working on the electric motor. We then must also be grateful to a physicist called Gaston Plane for inventing rechargeable lead-acid batteries that could be produced commercially. However, the final round of applause has to go to Thomas Parker, who brought the two together when he designed the first production electric car, which was built in London in 1884.

Across the pond

And Europe wasn’t the only place things were occurring. The US holds a special place in the evolution of the electric car too. There was actually a significant presence of electric vehicles in US cities at the beginning of the twentieth century. New York cab drivers had been the first to cotton on to the benefits. And some historians believe that at the turn of the century electric vehicles were sold in equal number to what we now consider to be a traditional car.

A touch of prestige

Of course, Europe too had its fair share of taxis. The Hummingbird could be spotted in London if you knew where to look. However, a particular point of note is that the first car to carry the Porsche name was the P1, built in 1898, and yes… it was electric!

So, what happened?

Electric vehicles were clean, quiet, and easy to drive. How did the combustion version take over? In retrospect, it makes for interesting reading. First, oil prices began to drop significantly. This was coupled with the rising popularity of Ford’s Model T in the early nineteen-noughties. Both these factors made combustion-run cars cheaper to buy and cheaper to run. With the invention of electric starter motors, they also became very easy to start. And before long, they could travel further, move faster, and refuel very quickly.

You can see, therefore, how the age of the electric car temporarily slipped into the background. Electric vehicles didn’t disappear completely, though. Don’t forget that familiar sound of the milk float trundling around early in the morning – that was electric. The Lunar Roving Vehicle was electric too. As was a BMW 1600 used in the 1972 Munich Olympics as a marathon support vehicle.

Thus, the technology was still being tinkered with when the sixties and seventies arrived. During this time, the price of oil catapulted upwards, and when something hits commercial pockets, there tends to be a commercial response. Inventive folk started fiddling again. Of course, the lobbying power of the oil industry was such that governments were discouraged from investing or encouraging investment in electric alternatives. But activity was taking place. And though it was stymied as petrol prices then fell again, the clock had begun ticking.

Then, in the 1990s, the environmental laws we’re more familiar with started coming into play. In 1996, General Motors released its first mass-produced electric car. Only a thousand were built and there were problems, however it was a start. Then in 1997, Toyota launched the Prius; a hybrid that some began to take seriously(ish).

Stealth mode

In many ways, it feels as though electric cars have crept back into our consciousness by stealth. Hybrid versions were the first to garner proper attention, as government subsidies and environmental regulations increased. By the noughties, Tesla was making a big noise and Elon Musk is not someone to ignore. And now, prestigious names such as Jaguar, Mercedes, and Audi are making a splash with new fully electric models. Plus, it’s of note, bearing in mind the history, that Porsche is offering a range of high-performance electric vehicles too.

The key now, for the sake of the planet, therefore, is that we throw all our ingenuity into improving batteries and sorting out our infrastructure. The prestige element is there. The practicality is in place. It’s now a matter of everyone embracing this new paradigm for driving.