The rise and fall of the electric car in the early 20th century

“Mrs. Henry Ford hated the smell of gasoline and drove an electric car until 1938,” said Matt Lee, an automotive historian and longtime employee of the Detroit Big Three.    Lee helps upkeep the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library, which he has been a part of for the last 24 years.  “Last time I looked the recharging equipment was still in the garage of Fairlane, the Ford Estate in Dearborn,” said Lee.  Mrs. Ford drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham.

Vehicles at the turn of the century came in many variations; gasoline, electric and steam powered vehicles were all in different stages of development, vying for the run of America’s roads.  An early leader in American driveways were electric vehicles.   

On September 7, 1896 America’s first track races were ran at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island. Things did not bode well for gasoline vehicles.  First and second place were taken by electric cars after five one mile heats.  The Riker Electric Stanhope and the Salom Electrobat took the tops spots, beating out five gasoline powered vehicles entered by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, though two of the Duryea’s were disqualified. 

In 1897 the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company put twelve electric taxis on New York City streets, increasing their fleet to sixty-two in 1898.  The batteries took eight hours to fully recharge and could travel a distance of twenty-five miles at fifteen miles per hour.  At the time, this proved to provide ample convenience for many.

So, why were electric cars so much more popular at the turn of the century?  Simple, they were cleaner, easier to drive, and considered more upper class, the main purchasers of vehicles at the time.  Also, electric vehicles did not have the smell, vibration, and difficulty of driving as a gasoline powered vehicle.

Thomas Edison believed in the electric automobile and for ten years tried to make it a viable alternative to the ever growing popularity of the gasoline engine, crediting himself with numerous patents pertaining to electric vehicles, improving on his nickel-alkaline battery patent during that time.  Sadly, he abandoned his idea in 1909, the year after Ford introduce the gasoline powered Model T.

Electric vehicles had multiple uses at the turn of the 20th century.  “Seagrave, a fire engine manufacturer developed a hybrid gas/electric [vehicle] 100 years ago,” said Lee, “It was – almost ideal…in the dead of winter the batteries lost power and the gasoline engines of the day were hard to start in the cold.”  Batteries then had the same issue as modern electronics have today when left in the cold for too long.  They lose their ability to hold a charge and function quickly.  A gas/electric hybrid couples an internal combustion engine with an electric propulsion system to increase efficiency and range.

In 1899 the U.S government purchased a number of electric vehicles for general transport assignments in the Army and for use in the U.S. Postal Service.
In both Boston and New York City, stores used electric delivery wagons to transport goods around the city.  “Electric delivery trucks were more popular than electric cars back then…the shipping industry would not allow gasoline powered vehicles on their wooden boat docks,” said Lee.

Starting as early as 1900 the demise of the electric car began.  At the Washington Park race track in Chicago a gasoline powered car beat out both an electric and steam powered car for the first time.  Then in 1901 oil was discovered near Beaumont, Texas, in Spindletop.  This dropped the price of oil to below five cents a barrel.  Even with advancements in gasoline powered cars, some 4,192 of the cars produced were still electrically powered, accounting for 28 percent of vehicle production in 1900.

Though in 1901, R. E. Olds became the first mass-producer of gasoline engine powered automobiles, building 423 curved-dashed Oldsmobiles.  At the time 423 of anything was considered mass-produced.  This did not stop the Studebaker Brothers from building their first run of 20 electric cars the following year.

With their early acceptance, electric vehicles were great for traveling the short distances that the roads would allow at the time.  Early vehicles were not built for smooth pavement driving; instead they were built more like off-road vehicles as they had to tackle many variations in terrain and a poor infrastructure.
Electric vehicles were created out of good old American ingenuity, and American ingenuity would ultimately lead to their demise.

In 1906 a torpedoed bodied Stanley Steam car set a new land speed record of 127 mph and electric vehicle companies stopped running speed tests. 

The road system that was ideal for short trips and dangerous for longer ones, started to become better suited for longer travels.  Still, in 1909, it took Mrs. John R. Ramsey, the first woman to drive from across the U.S., 53 days to drive from New York to San Francisco.

But there was hope in 1909, when Woodward Avenue, between Six Mile and Seven Mile Roads, in Detroit, Mich. became the first mile of rural concrete road paved in America.

Vehicle manufactures also began to turn away from electric vehicle production as the early 20th century rolled on in response to consumers traveling longer distances.  In 1911 the Studebaker Corporation was formed and they discontinued their production of electric vehicles solely for gasoline powered ones. 

Once the infrastructure in America become better suited for longer modes travels, electric cars began to show their flaws.  People wanted to travel farther without having to worry about running out of power.  Being stranded in the early 20th century was deadly, especially miles away from a town or city.

Gasoline powered vehicles allowed people to travel farther, even though they were dirtier; they technologically advance quicker than their electric counterparts.  “Then as now, batteries have been the big concern…weight and size,” said Lee.”  Batteries had limited range and took hours to recharge, not unlike the slew of new electric vehicles being introduced today.

By 1910 many homes were wired for electricity and there was a surge in electric vehicle popularity.  The Electric Vehicle Association of America standardized the electric vehicle charging plugs.  They came in one type and two different sizes.
Electric vehicle production peaked in 1912, but did not last long.  They peaked because the invention of the electric starter.  Charles Kettering invention did away with the hand crank starter on gasoline vehicles and increased their popularity over electric ones.

In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Aid Road Act.   He had numerous reason to sign it; from economic prosperity to his own enjoyment of motoring at the time.  President Wilson was such an avid motorist that  he mapped out a series of routes known as the Number One Ride, the Southern Maryland Ride, and the Potomac Ride and enthusiastically signed the Act.

The Federal Aid Road Act constituted that 50 percent of the total cost of each road construction project would be paid by the Federal government.   The roads that would get aid were roads in which the U.S. mail was transported over, both then and in the future. 

But good roads weren’t the only factor with the fall of electric vehicles.  Cost became a factor as gasoline powered vehicles could be sold at nearly half the price.  Electric vehicles were expensive to build and expensive to maintain; something gasoline powered vehicles began to curtail.

To help with the cost of electric vehicles, beginning in 1917 buyers of Milburn Light Electric cars had the option of purchasing a vehicle without a battery and in place could purchase an exchangeable battery as needed.  Both the vehicle and the battery were designed for quick replacement.

As electric vehicles tried to stay viable in the growing gasoline dominated market the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago produced the first gasoline-electric hybrid car in 1917.  It was a failure as it was difficult to service and was to slow for the price.  Gasoline powered vehicles were beginning to offer better power delivery, easier operation, and the range American’s were now looking for in their vehicles. 

By the 1920s though, electric vehicles were no longer a viable consumer product as gasoline vehicles began to sell millions of units.  The Anderson Electric Car Company’s Detroit Electric sales dropped from 191 in 1918 to 1,130 in 1920.

The electric vehicle was no longer a staple of American transportation, pushed into niche markets and low production numbers.  Gasoline was readily available, and produced the power and range for American’s needs.  Electric cars would live on in small numbers, with small resurgences in popularity in the 1960s and 70s due to rising fuel costs and environmental consciousness.

If the popularity and versatility of electric vehicles remained strong against the growing gasoline powered vehicle market, the American transportation landscape could easily be remembered for high-range, efficient motoring. 


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