September 24, 2023

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The Real History Of Electric Cars


  • Electric cars have been around since the 1830s, but lack of capability and usefulness hindered their popularity until recently.
  • Rechargeable batteries revolutionized electric vehicle transportation in the late 1800s, but the industry collapsed due to rapid expansion.
  • The Ford Model T and the affordability it brought to the market caused the demise of electric vehicles for many decades, but a resurgence occurred with the GM EV1 in 1996 and later with the Tesla Roadster in 2008.

Are electric cars actually a new idea? Not at all. In fact, electric cars have been around longer than gas-powered internal-combustion vehicles. Understanding how long electricity has been the desired fuel for cars could make you wonder why these cars took so long to catch on.

The early days of electric cars give us some insight into the lack of capability and usefulness. Thankfully, technology and innovation created the discoveries that we have today. From the early 1830s to today, EVs have been present in the automotive industry but mostly under the radar until recently.

Related: 10 Electric Cars That Will Make You Forget Your Love For Muscle Cars

1830s – The First Electric Cars Were More Of A Trick Than A Treat

Scottish-Made EVs

Battery technology dates back to the early 1800s but wasn’t rechargeable during the early days. Robert Anderson of Scotland built a motorized carriage in the 1830s that used batteries to move instead of oxen or horses. Not long after, Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, Scotland, built a prototype electric locomotive. When demonstrated, this train engine could drive for 1.5 miles at four mph while towing six tons. After this short drive, the locomotive needed new batteries.

The prototype electric locomotive was impressive enough that railway workers destroyed the machine because they saw it as threatening their jobs.

Rechargeable Batteries Changed Things

Rechargeable batteries weren’t invented until 1859, and the idea of using them for electric vehicle transportation became a reality in 1884 when Thomas Parker helped create electric-powered trams in England. In 1890, an inventor in Des Moines, Iowa, William Morrison, applied for a patent for an electric carriage. This vehicle appeared in a city parade in 1888, bringing an FWD setup, four horsepower, and a top speed of 20 mph. This vehicle had 24 battery cells that required recharging after 50 miles of driving.

1894 – Along Came The Electrobat

First Commercial EV

Black 1898 electrobat taxis
New-York tribune via Wikimedia 

The first commercially viable electric car in history was the Electrobat. Produced by Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris of Philadelphia, this vehicle was initially extremely slow and heavy. Early models had steel tires and 1,600 pounds of batteries. By 1896, the Electrobat evolved to use pneumatic tires and lighter materials to offer better speed. These later models featured a rear-steer system with two 1.1-kW motors that drove the vehicle at 20 mph for up to 25 miles. The Electrobat won several five-mile sprint races against gasoline vehicles in 1896.

Swapping Batteries Kept Electric Cabs On The Road

Morris and Salom built a few electric Hansom cabs, which were ideal public cab transportation vehicles. They sold the idea to Isaac L. Rice, who created the Electric Vehicle Company in New Jersey. By the early 1900s, more than 600 electric cabs were operating in New York, with smaller fleets in Boston, Baltimore, and other cities along the eastern seaboard.

To avoid the downtime o recharging, the New York arm of the company converted an ice arena into a battery-swapping station to allow cabs to drive in and have their batteries swapped out. Unfortunately, this brilliant system expanded too quickly, and the whole venture collapsed by 1907.

Related: 10 Uncomfortable Truths About Owning An Electric Car

1899-1923 – Electric Cars Got Pushed Out By the Model T

Names You Know in the EV Market

A parked 1917 Ford Model TT Huckster

Ransom Eli Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, built a short run of electric carriages before the first mass-market Oldsmobile vehicles. Ferdinand Porsche, the father of the founder of the Porsche brand, helped engineer an early electric car that could reach 22 mph. Studebaker also built a few electric cars, one of which was driven by Thomas Edison. Additionally, President William McKinley was driven to the hospital in an electric-powered ambulance after being shot. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was the first President to take a public ride in a car in 1902. The car was a Columbian electric.

Along Came The Ford Model T

Electric cars were popular among the well-heeled that could afford them, but Ford busted the idea that only the wealthy could afford cars with the moving assembly line and the more affordable Model T. In 1908, the Model T cost $850, but by 1923, this car cost less than $300, while most electric cars cost more than ten times that amount. This caused the demise of electric vehicles as part of the automotive industry for many decades.

1996 – GM Creates the EV1

A Transitional History

GM EV1 red

Although the Ford Model T all but canceled the electric car market, we saw electricity used in many different vehicles between 1923 and 1996. In fact, the Lunar Roving Vehicle used by NASA on the Moon was an EV. Four of these LRVs were built, but as expected, they were too expensive for most drivers. Several experimental models were created over the years, but only caught on once GM created the EV1.

California Created the EV1

Modern electric car history can turn to the GM EV1 as the car that made electricity popular as a fuel for cars once again. In 1996, California mandated automakers sell zero-emissions vehicles, and at the time, only electric cars met this standard. In response, GM created the EV1. This car had tons of tech and a driving range of 70 miles at first, which increased to 160 miles when a nickel-metal-hydride battery was used. Between 1996 and 2003, nearly 800 EV1s were leased in Los Angeles, Tucson, and Phoenix.

Related: Here’s What Really Happened To The GM EV1 Electric Car

2008 – The Tesla Roadster Takes Over

The Roadster Was the First Tesla

2023 Tesla Roadster in red color.

Taking some tech from an earlier electric sports car, the AC Propulsion tzero, Tesla began production of the Roadster in 2008. This car eventually received proprietary drivetrain technology, making it one of the market’s most successful electric sports cars. Tesla became the first company to put lithium-ion batteries in a production car and the first to bring a 200-mile driving range to the market in the Roadster. By 2012, Tesla sold 2,400 Roadster models at a price of $109,000 each, bringing a cool factor to the electric car market.

The Nissan Leaf Makes Its Mark

2018 Nissan Leaf

Tesla’s success caused larger automakers to focus on electric vehicles, at least in a small way. The early 2010s gave us the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive and the Chevrolet Spark EV, but nothing quite gained the same popularity or success as the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf first arrived in 2011 with a 24.0-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. By 2016, this battery grew to a 30.0-kWh model, adding more driving range. The Nissan Leaf quickly became the most popular electric car in history, with more than 300,000 models sold globally by January 2018.

Related: Honda Insight: Everything You Need To Know About America’s First Mass-Produced Hybrid

Present – EVs Are Becoming Mainstream

The Automotive World Moves Toward Electric Cars

Blue 2022 F-150 Lightning XLT

In reality, electric cars started the entire automotive industry, which makes expanding the EV market a return to the earliest version of the status quo in this industry. Today we see electric pickup trucks, SUVs, sports cars, sedans, and hatchbacks. Battery technology has improved, allowing modern EVs to challenge internal combustion engines for driving range and refueling time. The future of the electric vehicle market is bright and filled with governmental support from many countries, making electric cars more popular, acceptable, and mainstream than ever before.

What’s next for electric cars? Soon, today’s EVs will become nothing more than another footnote in the history of the automotive industry.