Last Reviewed: May 20, 2024
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Most people associate the beginning of the automobile with Henry Ford or perhaps Carl Benz but they were actually latecomers. There is no clear origin of the automobile but what is certain is that we had electric cars before either of them had achieved anything. Automobile history started with the steam engine and gasoline came next. But at one time electric cars were more popular than their steam or gasoline cousins. The first direct current (DC) motor was produced in Europe around 1830 and a blacksmith in Vermont was the first American to build one a few years later. Batteries came next and by the late 1800's both Europe and America had electric vehicles on the road.

1908 Baker Electric coupe

1908 Baker Electric

At the beginning of the 1900's steam engines dominated the automobile world and electric cars were gaining fast, leaving gasoline engines behind. Steam engines had been around for centuries and it was a natural progression to apply them to bicycles, tricycles and four-wheel vehicles. However while steam had the distinct advantage of requiring a readily available power source - coal or wood - it had the distinct disadvantage of taking the better part of an hour to reach operating temperature and had an insatiable need for water. The gasoline engine was even more troublesome at that time. Early designs were crude, producing minimal horsepower, and gasoline was not easy to find. In addition they were noisy, smelly, they shook and vibrated, and the crank used to start them all to frequently kicked back and broke the user's arm.

As the automobile evolved entrepreneurs were anxious to meet their growing needs and gradually the infrastructure of roads, gas stations and accessible electricity expanded, leading to the demise of steam powered vehicles and the birth of the automotive industry. As the industry grew the market demanded more and better of everything related and manufacturers were only too happy to find ways to improve tires, suspension, steering and brakes, and create an endless selection of accessories to tempt buyers. Early electric vehicles were limited to cities that had electricity but in large cities like Detroit and New York they became solutions for buses, taxi cabs and delivery trucks. In 1897 the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia built the first fleet of taxis for New York City and by 1910 electric cars were outselling steam and gasoline. Compared to its competitors, electric vehicles were quiet, clean and easy to operate, without vibrations or the need for a problematic transmission. The electric car's top speed was only about 30 miles per hour but at that time there were few roads outside of the cities that would allow you to go any faster. Electric cars were leading the pack and had become a fashion statement for the rich and famous, including Henry Ford.

Electric cars peaked in 1912 when over one third of the vehicles on the streets were battery powered, but by 1930 they were all but extinct. Their death came quickly and painfully to the thousands of people who had created the industry. There were several causes: First and foremost, in 1912 Charles Kettering applied the design of the DC car motor to make a DC starter motor for gasoline engines, eliminating the need of the hand crank. Shortly after Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles with gasoline engines at half the price of most electric cars. Oil was discovered throughout America making gasoline cheap and available everywhere. And more and more paved roads called for faster speeds. Electric vehicles came back in fashion in the 1960's, with consumer demands for cheaper alternative energy sources and lower exhaust emissions.