Electric vehicles: The first 50 years

Early trials and triumphs

By Morand Fachot

As early as 1899, Nikolaus August Ott, inventor of the four-stroke liquid gas engine, was convinced that electric propulsion would eventually have its hour of glory. His forecast was ultimately confirmed this year. The automobile industry may be on the threshold of a new era 130 years after Gustave Trouvé built his tricycle...

Peugeot VLV (Light City Car), 1942 Peugeot VLV (Light City Car), 1942

First attempt

Initially, all actors were on an equal footing, whether they had chosen steam, gas, electricity or that foul-smelling liquid, petrol — sold only in chemist shops. All could rejoice at the bright prospects for automobiles. If Trouvé's 1881 tricycle still had pedals (one can never be careful enough…), its counterpart, unveiled a few months later by English engineers William Ayrton and John Perry, didn't have any back-up propulsion system.

In 1893, Frenchman Charles Jeantaud established the first factory producing electric cars only. A real enthusiast, he took part in rallies and races where Count Chasseloup-Laubat and Emile Jenatzy were competing. The latter reached the incredible speed of 105.876 km/h on 1 May 1899 in his "Jamais Contente" electric car. This was the first time someone had driven an automobile over 100 km/h, "a diabolical speed that should be punished with thunder and lightning", commented priests and bishops. For their part doctors thought that eardrums would be ruptured by the noise of these "earthly rockets".

Even if none of these disasters actually happened, the pioneers, scared by this extraordinary performance, backed up. Endurance records replaced speed trials: in 1899 it became possible to drive 140 km without recharging a car; one year later, it was 262 km, and in 1901 a French-produced Krieger managed 307 km.

In the US (United States), the Morris & Salom works renovated the New York taxi fleet with their silent and odourless Electrobat.

In Austria, Ferdinand Porsche was revolutionizing electric car production with his Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid, which was the first-ever hybrid vehicle. It had wheel hub-mounted motors directly connected to the axle, making it possible to install electric motors on all wheels of a vehicle. Furthermore, this car could brake from all wheels: if required, one or several electric motors could be cut off to achieve the expected result.

At the turn of the century, several firms were offering all-electric private cars, delivery vans, lorries and buses. At the time, the French postal and telegraphic services and taxi drivers were strong supporters of this technology. In 1898, the Automobile Club de France, which was also behind the first car show, launched a competition opened to all models of taxis. Participants had to drive 60 km every day over 12 days. All 16 electric vehicles that took part finished the competition successfully. The only petrol-engine car, a Panhard & Levassor, was disqualified, being too noisy and giving off a sickening stench. 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, electric cars resisted bravely to the onslaught of the oil industry. Between 1907 and 1942 the Detroit Electric company was producing up to 1 000 vehicles a year. It was also in the US that, under pressure from George Baldwin Selden, a lawyer, the idea of imposing a punitive levy on all manufacturers of petrol engine cars was launched.

As early as 1879 Selden had registered a patent for a vehicle as a generic concept based on the so-called Brayton cycle engine (using a piston compressor to heat air, before mixing it with fuel and igniting it in an expansion cylinder). In 1899 the Electric Vehicle Company decided to enter this flourishing market with the objective of establishing a monopoly on the production of taxis powered by batteries. In 1911 Henry Ford won a case by demonstrating that a car could not be powered by the Brayton engine, thus lifting one of the last remaining obstacles to the mass production of cars powered by petrol engines.

In spite of this, EVs (electric vehicles) were still very popular. There were around 35 000 of them in 1912. Vehicles were silent and very easy to drive; the electricity lobby had a powerful ally in the person of Thomas Edison.

However, the oil producers' camp had strong arguments: oil was cheap and abundant. Automobiles powered by petrol engines, which outperformed EVs in terms of range and speed, eventually took over the personal vehicles' market.

Second try

The situation regarding commercial vehicles was completely different, with EVs ruling the roost in the 1920s. The sale of entire fleets of vehicles was a profitable business in particular as regards laundry vans or vehicles to deliver foodstuffs and drinks or newsprint.

Steinmetz, Ward and Walker were the US vehicle manufacturers of the time. In Germany, the main producers were Bergmann, Hansa-Lloyd and Maschinenfabrik Esslingen, which built vehicles with a maximum loading capacity of five tonnes. Germany's S&B and Hawa, as well as Automatic in the US, tried to launch electric micro cars on the market.

In Switzerland similar vehicles were built for the post office, in particular, by Tribelhorn.

However, if it proved fairly simple to charge the smaller vehicles, the larger ones needed special charging stations and there weren't many of these. France gradually lost its leading position as battery manufacturers refused to service their products. (Charging errors and poor maintenance considerably shortened the lives of batteries.)

On the other hand, in Germany, taxis and official vehicles could rely on a professional network of charging stations. However, at the time there was no cross-border agreement for charging.

Third attempt

Following the German occupation of France during the Second World War, a comprehensive ban was imposed on the sale of petrol. As a result many companies took a fresh look at electric propulsion and many different models were produced, from micro cars to eight-tonne lorries. With its VLV (Voiture Légère de Ville - Light City Car), Peugeot produced its first modern electric city car in 1942.

Spain had been suffering from a petrol shortage since the 1936-1939 civil war. Taxis, private cars and commercial vehicles were adapted to electric propulsion thanks to the local producers' skills.

In Italy, famous manufacturers like Lancia and Maserati had plans to build electric commercial vehicles.

Fourth round

Fuel shortages continued after the war, allowing electric vehicles to remain attractive. However, their use was mainly limited to the commercial sector. Delivery men in particular valued this silent means of transport. In-town electric vehicles could move around at any time during the day or at night.

The situation was much more complex for private cars. Buyers wanted fast and luxurious vehicles. Following "the greater, the better" principle, road cruisers soon started invading North American highways...

Peugeot VLV (Light City Car), 1942 Emile Jenatzy reached 105.876 km/h in his "Jamais Contente" electric car in May 1899
Walker electric truck, US, 1920s Walker electric truck, US, 1920s
Peugeot VLV (Light City Car), 1942 Peugeot VLV (Light City Car), 1942