The First Age of the Electric Car in the U.S.
Although the horse and wagon are still considered a reliable form of transportation, the motor car is becoming more acceptable and common on the uneven streets of the United States. The options are electric, steam, and gas-powered. Gas and steam move faster and are less expensive than electric, but have sizable disadvantages.
ICE engines are noisy, dirty, vibrate, need a hand-crank to get them started, and smell. The new gas engines’ hand-crank takes time to turn, requires a fair amount of elbow grease to get it going, and can kick back at you if you push it the wrong way. Steam engines have a minimum of 10 - 15 minutes of warm-up time on a good day and upwards of 45 minutes on cold mornings. They also burn a gallon of water per 8 miles (12.9 km). Electric automobiles are considered the vehicle of choice because they run cleaner, offer a smoother ride, are easy to start and stop, and are quiet. To start them all you have to do is turn a key and you’re off. Their limited range, however, causes issues, but they find popularity among well-heeled customers who use them as city cars, where this proves to be less of a problem. At the turn of the century, 33,842 cars travel the U.S. roads. 40 percent are steam-powered, 28 percent electric, and 22 percent run on gas.
Porsche, the World’s First… Hybrid
Using what he has learned from his Lohner-Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche combines the efficiency of electric with the power of gasoline to move his car, the Semper Vivus (Always Alive). He lowers the number of batteries from 74 to 44 and adds two internal combustion engines to power two generators. The generators send electricity directly to the electric motors with any excess going to charge the batteries. Semper Vivus can also run just off the batteries with the ICE’s turned off. Ferdinand incorporates an innovative starting system into the car as well, offering two different ways to get it going. Drivers can choose to have the electric motors start the gas powered engines through reverse polarity and running it off of batteries for a couple of seconds in reverse or by hand cranking the car. While not perfect and not production ready, the Semper Vivus is a breakthrough in automotive innovation.
A World’s Fair Appearance Hints of Things to Come
Talking films, escalators, and diesel engines are presented to the world for the first time at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the world’s fair held in Paris, France, from 14 April to 12 November. One of the most talked about inventions presented is the Lohner-Porsche electric car, a “Chaise” (“Chair”), which is the only Austrian car at the fair, and the first-ever transmissionless vehicle. It is touted as a revolutionary and epoch-making innovation.
Horseless Efficiency in Action
In the company’s quest to cut costs, New York City department store, B. Altman and Company, buy an electric truck built by F. R. Wood & Son. Horse-drawn delivery wagons have been used since the store’s opening in 1865, but the retailer is increasingly concerned by the price of the upkeep for the horses and wants to experiment with this new way of transportation. The new electric trucks move merchandise from warehouse to distribution center twice-a-day, and prove durable and efficient.
Saving Time and Lives in Paris
The Paris Fire Department reveals its unique electric “hook-and-ladder” wagon at the Paris World’s Fair. The battery-operated fire truck out performs its steam competition by arriving at a fire within 10-20 seconds as opposed to 1½ minutes and can immediately pump water from its hundred gallon tank, a gain of 4 minutes over steam. The hose is then coupled with a hydrant to take over from the onboard water supply. The electric motor of the vehicle not only makes it run, but pumps the water through the simple pull of a lever. In addition to being faster to the site of a blaze, the new fire truck alleviates the need for the constant stoking of the fire required to run a steam engine.
Edison Takes on Electric Vehicle Batteries
Many innovators take note of the high demand for electric cars, exploring ways to improve existing technology. Baker Motor Vehicle Company, located in Cleveland, Ohio, is among the most highly regarded manufacturers of these battery - powered horseless carriages — one of the first motor cars in the White House is a Baker electric. Thomas Edison is unsurprisingly drawn to these vehicles as well and chooses a Baker as his first car. He takes note of the limited range of the batteries, their excessive weight, and susceptibility to breakage and damage due to being jostled during travel. Edison comes up with the revolutionary nickel - iron battery that is capable of being quickly and continuously recharged. The batteries are also durable and can survive for decades, changing the landscape of electric cars.
The Start of a Hybrid Revolution
Ferdinand Porsche makes improvements to his Semper Vivas hybrid vehicle by cutting back even more on the number of batteries and amping up the horsepower. The new car, called Mixte, becomes the first production ready gas/electric combo car and goes on to win the Exelberg Rally with Porsche driving it himself, then breaks the Austrian speed record at 60 km/h (37.2 mph). The innovative hybrid sparks a rush by other manufacturers to produce similar models and the gas/electric vehicle is soon available throughout the world.
Léon Steams Past Electric: 120 km/h (75.06 mph)
It takes almost a full 3 years, but the Land Speed Record held by Camille Jenatzy since 1899 is finally broken, not by petrol, but steam. Inventor and early French steam car pioneer, Lèon Serpollet, becomes the first driver to set and hold the Land Speed Record without using an electric car with the ovoid steam car — Œuf de Pâques (Easter Egg) — built by Gardner-Sepollet, the company he owns with his brother, Henri, and a wealthy American, Frank Gardner. The egg-shaped car reaches 120 km/h (75 mph) over the flying kilometre on the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, France, and holds onto the honor of being the fastest car on record for the next 5 months.
A Day to Live in Land Speed Record Infamy
On Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, New York, Walter C. Baker, the innovative owner of Baker Motor Vehicle company, goes out to prove that American electric cars can beat out their European counterparts on the road. His Baker Torpedo is a streamlined contraption built for speed on the straightaways and nothing else. Having had a series of crashes in his quest for setting a record, Baker has incorporated a brand new safety system into his car for the very first time — seatbelts. With Baker driving and his chief mechanic and electrician, C. E. Denzer sitting behind managing the batteries and hand-brakes, the aptly named Torpedo races through the Staten Island streets in front of a crowd of over 20,000 — over a third of the city’s residents — reaching a speed of over 105 mph (168.98 km/h), more than 30 mph (48.3 km/h) over the record. As the Torpedo gets to the end of its run, it comes to a bend where a small crowd has gathered to watch this amazing feat only to spin off into the group when it can’t navigate the turn. Baker and Denzer survive, but nine spectators are injured, two fatally so. The land speed record is taken away from Baker due to the tragedy, his reputation is irrevocably damaged, and speeding events on public streets are banned.
The ICE Heats Up the Road... Finally: 122.44 km/h (76.08 mph)
Within 5 months of Gardner-Serpollet’s Œuf de Pâques (Easter Egg) setting the first non-electric land speed record, gas engines finally get their due. The Mors automobile factory, an early French car manufacturer, breaks the record in Ablis, France, with its internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle at 122.44 km/h (76.08 mph) driven by multi-millionaire, William K. Vanderbilt II, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune. Mors cars are among the first to engage in auto racing back in 1897 thanks to founder Émile Mors’ belief in its technical and promotional benefits. Except for Fred Marriott and his steam-powered Stanley Steamer in 1906 taking back the title for non-ICE vehicles by hitting 205.5 km/h (127.66 mph) — going greater than trains of that time — land speed records are dominated by gas-power for the rest of the 20th century.
The Studebaker Bros. Turn in Horses for Batteries
The Studebaker family come to America from Germany in 1736 as The Stutenbeckers, expert blade makers. After a rugged and dangerous spring on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1756, the family now known as Studebaker turn their craft skills to making durable wagons, creating the world famous Conestoga — the iconic covered wagon. The reliability of the carriages become legendary, and brothers Henry, Clement and John form the Studebaker Wagon Corporation, providing transportation for the Union Army during the Civil War. By 1903, the brothers are producing automobiles, opting for the more reliable electric over the then - fledgling gas available under the Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company. The model line includes the Runabout, Stanhope, Victoria-Phaeton, 4-passenger Surrey, and a 14-passenger omnibus all designed to reflect the Studebaker’s rather lucrative passenger horse-drawn carriage line. They also offer a battery-operated ambulance, stake trucks capable of hauling between 500 to 10,000 pounds, and a panel side wagon.
Romanov Takes his Trolley Tech to the U.S.
As part of Russia’s preparations for the 1904 World’s Fair, visionary electric car designer, Hippolyte Romanov visits the city of St. Louis and Washington University, the site of the International spectacle, to assist with presenting a variety of Russian innovations.
The Most Inventive World’s Fair
The St. Louis based international event not only welcomes an unprecedented number of so-called new American foods—the hamburger, peanut butter, iced tea, club sandwich, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone are among the culinary introductions (though all have existed since long before the fair)—but a unique way to travel around the two mile expanse of exhibits, attractions and restaurants. The electric Ess Eff Auto Chair seats two and is steered one-handed while it toddles along on a two-cylinder, two stroke engine with 17 horsepower. Obviously not meant for the open road, the offering from Ess Eff Silent Motor Company, owned by Semple S. Scott of Buffalo, New York, makes it possible to see the sights without tiring.
Blissful Silence in the Turn of the Century
The horse and carriage in early 20th century New York is becoming a hindrance. The noise of the hooves on the pavement and soiling of the streets overwhelm locals. The city known for its elaborate public transportation seeks to move people in great quantities from one area to another, but laying tracks down such places as Fifth Avenue and the like is met with strong opposition. The answer comes in the form of the electric omnibus, which is able to transport passengers throughout the city without equine noise or mess.
The Scam that Set Clean Transport Back 100 Years
London Electrobus Company provides beautifully clean and quiet minibuses to a London tired of the noxious petrol fumes. The first double-deckers to offer a roof for its upstairs passengers, these beacons of alternative energy consist of 20 buses at its peak and are exceedingly popular with riders. It closes, however, in 1909 thanks to systematic fraud that ends up setting battery-powered buses back for the next 100 years. The company’s intentions are honorable and products are well-engineered and managed, but its partnerships are not. Thanks to a Baron de Martigny—who turns out to be a Canadian music-hall artist — and Edward Lehwess — a German lawyer and consummate con artist — the company is taken for a very public ride. Promises of a patent that ends up being old and having nothing to do with electric buses, and delivering only 20 of the 50 buses London Electrobus orders become well-known to all, and the duping leaves the company exposed and a bad taste in the mouths of potential future reputable investors.
Electric Cars in NYC
Electric cars remain a strong player in the fast changing and booming automobile market by finding easier and more efficient ways to recharge batteries. A line of battery-powered vehicles of the New York Edison Company stand at the ready for service, Manhattan, NYC, 1906.
Detroit Electric: 13,000 electric cars from 1907 - 1939
Anderson Electric Car Company — formerly known as the Anderson Carriage Company that once made carriages and horse-drawn buggies from 1884 until 1911 — starts producing automobiles called Detroit Electrics powered by rechargeable lead acid batteries in 1907.For an additional $600 you can get one with an Edison nickel-iron battery starting in 1911. The cars claim to be capable of running 80 mi (128.75 km) before needing a recharge although one actually goes 211.3 mi (340.05 km) on a single charge during a test. While it goes no faster than 20 mph (32 km/h) , it’s a favorite for city driving, especially among women and doctors — the reliability of an instant start instead of the cranking of an ICE and potential explosion from gasoline is what makes it so appealing. The Henry Ford Family is not immune to the draw of the quieter, easier to maneuver cars, owning 3 Detroit Electrics from the mid-1900s to the late teens: Henry buys his wife, Clara, a Model C coupe with a special child seat in 1908, Edsel purchases an electric Model D, and a Model 47 brougham becomes Clara’s car again in 1914.
Electric Makes a Clean Sweep
The electric motor, while starting to be eclipsed by the lighter, more durable gas-powered car, is still embraced around the world for everyday tasks. This electric street sweeper cleans the roadway in Berlin, Germany, one of many public works vehicles run on battery.
A Strong, Silent Truck is Born
The Commercial Truck Company (CTC) opens for business and is solely focused on the production of large electric trucks to aid in the pick-up and delivery of cargo for businesses. The company provides service for various customers, with 22 specifically chosen by the Curtis Publishing company — publishers of Ladies’ Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post — to haul coal for plant boilers and drop-off editions of periodicals. CTC’s silent yet powerful trucks travel at a top speed of 12 mph (19.31 km/h) — 2 mph (3.22 km/h) over the speed limit when empty—have wood spoke wheels covered in solid rubber with an electric motor powering each, and are known as powerhouses — the Model F-5 flatbed regularly carries in excess of ten tons although it is only rated for 5 tons. The truck company closes its doors in 1927, but the Curtis Publishing Company keeps one of its electric delivery trucks working all the way until 1962.
Battery-Power and Hybrid Deliver
Ferdinand Porsche becomes the Technical Director at Austro-Daimler in Wiener Neustadt and gets to work bringing his innovative ideas to one of Europe’s largest automakers. The patent he establishes at the Lohner Company during his tenure is now sold to Daimler, and Porsche’s battery-powered and petrol/electric hybrid drive systems are soon incorporated into fleet vehicles under his watchful eye.
A World of Change
The decade begins with two firsts that resonate throughout the next 100+ years—the first black boxer wins the Heavyweight Boxing Championship and the Boy Scouts is brought from England to America. Throughout the next 10 years, the world finds itself in the midst of some of its most challenging times as the First World War begins in 1914, a mere 2 years after the devastating sinking of the unsinkable Titanic and 3 years before the Russian Revolution. It’s in this time that the world of motor vehicles begins taking a turn and the position of preference long held by the electric motor is soon taken over by the lighter, less expensive, easier to maintain gasoline internal combustion engine.
Sensing the future, Henry Ford establishes his assembly line and pays his workers double the minimum wage to crank out the ICE behemoths, which are made even more attractive and convenient than their battery-powered opponents with the ironic incorporation of electricity into the petrol operating system, a marriage that changes the automotive landscape for generations to come.
Electric Continues to Compete
Mercury provides Garage Charging Sets for its customers to keep them happy amidst the ever expanding ICE market. Above is an Arc Rectifier Charging Set powering an electric car in a garage in Cleveland, Ohio, c.1910.
Studebaker and Electric Prove Rugged Reliability
In Pickwick, Ohio, Tillie the 4-ton elephant and a star of the Robinson Bros. Circus strains her tendon yanking a wagon out of a ditch. In need of a vet and unsure how to transport her, the show’s agent contacts the Studebaker Bros. main office in South Bend, Indiana, seeking assistance. The answer comes in the durable Studebaker electric stake truck, making it one of the heaviest “live loads” ever transported by automobile, let alone one that is battery-powered. Both the truck and Tillie survive to continue delighting customers and fans.
The Electric Engine that Did
Using his original petrol/electric hybrid drive design, Ferdinand Porsche creates the all-electric “Austro-Hungarian Electric Train” or “Landwehr-Train,” named for Austrian Colonel General Ottokar Landwehr von Pragenau who prompts the idea. The train is able to drive on streets as well as on railroad tracks thanks to its versatile steering and wheel configuration. On roads, up to six trailers are precisely steered via a special system, making it perfect for narrow, winding thoroughfares and mountain highways. The solid-rubber tires are transformed for railroad use by bolting steel discs to them, making it possible to attach an additional four trailers. A generator provides the electricity that is sent to all of the cars, powering electric motors installed at every second axle.
An Emotionally Charged Decision Deals a Blow to Electric Cars
On a cold winter night in 1908, Byron Carter helps a stalled driver on Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River. He cranks her gas-powered car for her, but she’s forgotten to set the spark lever that ensures the crank will turn smoothly and not kick back, and it breaks Carter’s jaw. With the wet and the cold, Carter’s broken jaw turns into fatal pneumonia and he dies. When Cadillac co-founder, Henry M. Leland, learns that the car that kicks back on his friend, Byron, is a Cadillac, he swears, “The Cadillac car will kill no more men if we can help it.” His engineers build an electric self-starter, but it’s too big. Leland then calls on Charles Kettering, the lead member of the fabled band of auto engineers called the “Barn Gang” who have incorporated into Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, aka Delco. Kettering and his team work day and night to meet the Cadillac chief’s February 1911 deadline, and he creates a small electric starter that serves three purposes in the gas-powered car — which it still serves to this day — as starter, generator to create the spark for ignition, and current for lighting. After several tests, Leland approves it for the 1912 Cadillac model and orders 12,000 self-starters. With the ease of starting an ICE car without a crank, which also means lower noise and smell, the electric starter spells the end of the less powerful, more expensive and slower moving electric car.
“By Far the Best Electric on the Market”
From 1898 to 1914, The Waverley Electric is the car of choice for the upper class, celebrities and doctors. The fairly hefty price tag for the time — models run from about $850 to $3,150 ($23,410 - $86,756 in today’s dollars), depending on the style — doesn’t seem to deter many at first. For a time, the cars are made by the Pope-Waverley company, a partnership that exists from 1900 until 1908. When the company comes out with the Silent Waverley Limousine-Five in 1912, the ads clearly appeal to women and the “refinements” they crave. However, by the mid-1900s, these cars are competing against the gas-powered Model T, which is selling for $490 ($13,495) and the Waverley Company closes its doors for good in 1916.
A Car Best Traveled
As legend tells it, when Col. Edward Bailey comes home from the Spanish American War in 1899, his father, S. R. Bailey, presents him with a Bailey Electric Victoria Phaeton, which the elder builds in his factory as a surprise. The Baileys already create high-end carriages and this is the company’s first entrance into the horseless trend just beginning to sweep the globe. Edward is said to have called it the most beautiful car he’s ever seen, but ends up needing to wait another 7 years before it can be driven due to the exceptional weight of the batteries. Soon, Bailey Electric cars carry Edison batteries exclusively and the company begins producing electric automobiles. These are said to be among the best — if not the best—electric cars ever to grace the roads and many believe they may very well be the best automobiles ever made. In 1913, the Bailey Electric Roadster makes a 1,301 mile (2093.8 km) trip from Boston to Chicago in mid-autumn seamlessly, proving its incredible endurance and stability. Unfortunately, funding dries up by 1916 when the less expensive gas-powered vehicles take over the marketplace and the beautiful Bailey Electrics — sold for $2,400 - $2,600 ($56,256 - $60,944 today)—soon find themselves a distant memory.
Ingenious Midwestern Luxury
Fred Buck starts Argo Electric Vehicle Company in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1910. His vision is to create comfortable, spacious battery-powered cars that eclipse those in the growing gasoline market. By 1912, a five-passenger brougham is debuted at the 1912 New York Auto Show and is quickly followed by a roadster, several commercial models and a limousine. The Argo Electric Fore-Drive Limousine provides smooth, quiet elegant travel to the upper class via an 80-volt Westinghouse DC motor with a five-speed controller until production of all Argo models ends in 1918.
A Dangerous Ride with the World’s Lowest Price Tag
Adding motors to bicycles is nothing new in 1914, but the A.O. Smith Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, purchases the U.S. manufacturing rights to England’s Arthur William Wall’s direct drive motor wheel. At first, the company is powering bicycles, but soon add a wooden-framed buckboard car to the design to create the “Smith Motorwheel.” Before long, the rights are purchased by Briggs & Stratton Company, producers of the Motor Wheel and Flyers. Improving on the original design, Briggs & Stratton market the new Flyer nationwide, paint almost all of them red — earning the name “Red Bug” — then sells the rights again to Automotive Electric Services Corporation. Gas powered Red Bugs continue to be produced until the supply of engines run out then Automotive Electric Services substitutes an electric motor powered by battery. Considered one of the most dangerous “cars” on the road, the Red Bug gains a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most inexpensive car of all time, listed as selling for between $125 to $150 USD in 1922 ($1744.45 to $2093.34 today).
A Light, Elegant Alternative
The Milburn Light Electric car premiers in 1915, a pure reflection of the innovative spirit of its British-born namesake, George Milburn, who passes away 32 years prior. A prosperous general store owner in rural Indiana in 1848, George becomes the largest manufacturer of farm wagons in the world by 1875 with his Milburn Wagon Company. When the business he leaves behind starts building electric cars that are not only unique in driveability, but in design—courtesy of designer Karl Probst — it comes as no surprise. Milburn Light Electrics are considered among the most elegant cars of their time, lower priced than other battery-powered vehicles, with a lighter chassis and offered in a variety of colors, including soft blue and pink — a refreshing change from the basic blues, browns, and greys of other cars. From 1915 until 1923, Light Electrics can be found in Coupe, Brougham, Touring, Light Delivery truck styles and even a taxicab at one point. These cars are the vehicle of choice for both President Woodrow Wilson, who owns one to tool around the White House grounds, and his secret service men in 1918. A fire in 1919 destroys the Milburn plant, but the team finds a warehouse at Toledo University to continue their work by the beginning of 1920. GM purchases the plant in February 1923, which allows workers to stay on for the next two months to finish construction on unfinished models. By June, Milburn Electric is no more.
A Cheaper Public Transportation Takes Hold
Electric trams are the transportation of choice for the citizens of York, England, in 1900 — a cleaner, quieter and more efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. Building tramways, however, is expensive and as the city looks to less expensive ways to travel, Edison Electric buses are brought in and charging stations are created to service them. These trolley buses go into operation in March of 1915, making York one of the very first operators in the country to employ the newer, cheaper option. Named “The Trackless” by locals, these are built first by Railless Electric Traction Company and last, off and on, throughout the 1920s. The Trackless look to be completely retired in 1929 until three more are made by Karrier-Clough and brought into the community in 1931. They are finally taken over by gasoline powered buses in 1935.
The U.S. Military Makes a Bold Attempt
The First World War is here for the rest of the world, but America is just now entering. They, however, have no tanks although they are familiar with how effective they are due to the successes of their British allies. They go about taking a page from the Porsche playbook, creating a heavy, formidable gasoline-electric powered hybrid developed by Holt and General Electric. The features are impressive — 6-10 mm (0.24 - 0.39 in) of armor with a 75 mm (2.95 in) Vickers mountain gun mounted in the nose and two detachable Browning machine-guns fitted to the sides. It can be crewed by six or seven men, including a driver. It is, unfortunately, unwieldy, failing all of the trials and unable to climb even the most modest slopes or move above a speed of 10 km/h (6mph) on the flattest surface. The tank is rejected and all work ceases on the Holt gas-electric.
1920 - 1935
The Decline of Electric and the Soar of Gas Prices
Starting in 1920, the electric car is slowly but surely phased out of practical existence by a gas-burning alternative that makes more sense. Auto repair shops and car dealerships sell gasoline to motorists, which costs about 17¢ a gallon at this time ($2.37 in today’s prices) until a terrible shortage suddenly happens in Oregon and gas prices shoot up as high as 55¢ per gallon ($7.68 in 2017). Considering that the average income is $1500 a year ($20,933.41) and the cars run at 15 miles (24.14 km) to the gallon, if an average car is traveling 10,000 miles (16,093.44 km) in a year, that’s $5500 a year ($76,755.84) spent on gas alone — about as cost prohibitive as it gets. The shortage has many wondering if this is just a way to drive prices, but the heads of the big three oil companies — Standard, Shell and Associated — claim, “not true.” By autumn, prices are stabilizing, costs are down, and actual filling stations are opening up to service the thousands of car owners. The ICE is now ruler of the road and the glow of the electric dims, becoming nothing more than a fad of DIY proportions by the 1930s.
Dreams of Autonomy Grow to Slow-Dawning Reality
It began with the great Leonardo in the late 1400s. A vehicle that drives itself. Not just a horseless carriage, but a horseless, driverless contraption that maneuvers on its own. While it would languish as a sketch and a dream until the Whitehead Torpedo and “The Secret” to its success in 1866, actually transporting human beings would remain a distant thought and hope for another almost 60 years when tentative attempts are made to varying results.
Female Friendly Versatility
The electric car may be slowly falling out of favor, but it’s still a hit with women. Several gimmicks are even employed to keep the ladies coming back for more, including a foldable 3-wheeled car introduced in the 1920s that goes from a simple two-seater to a sedan with a pull here and a tuck there. So simple, even a female can do it. Indeed.
The Amazing Feats Houdina — Not Houdini—Performed
At the height of the great Harry Houdini’s popularity, a little known engineer named Francis P. Houdina, brings a nearly five century dream to reality. By equipping a 1926 Chandler with a transmitting antenna on its tonneau and having one of his workers, John Alexander, follow in a second car to operate the controls sending radio waves to the Chandler, the “driverless” automobile is maneuvered through the very busy streets of jazz era New York City. Known as the “Linrriccan Wonder,” this marvel’s first drive takes it down Broadway, around Columbus Circle then south on Fifth Avenue while Houdina hangs onto its running board ready to take the controls at any moment — which he does several times. The media of the day goes wild for what is being called “The Phantom Auto,” giving it just as much attention when Achen Motor, a car distributor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, demonstrates Houdina’s invention on the Midwestern city’s streets in December 1926. It is featured at Bigger Bargain Day in Fredricksburg, Virginia, in 1932 one last time to the same fanfare.
British Make Milk Float(s)
Outram Bakery delivers its delicious wares by steam, petrol and horse. By the early 1920s, the company is looking to replace horses with electric and discover that importing vehicles costs more than it is willing to spend. The Southport, Merseyside bakery decides to build its own and create Victor Electrics. By 1923, the fledgling electronics company puts its first electric delivery van into circulation and starts delivering baked goods to the masses. In 1931, Victor Electrics introduces the iconic milk floats that become synonymous with dairy delivery all over the U.K. While it’s unclear whether Victor Electrics is the creator of this unique vehicle, the company is instrumental in bringing it to the masses. The electric milk float continues its quiet, steady progress throughout England for the next several decades and can be found in some areas to this day.
Hanging on to a Fading Ideal
As the electric car loses ground to the more popular gas-powered alternatives, some automakers continue championing a battery-powered cause even in the face of fading interest. Partridge Wilson Engineering, which has been making radios and battery chargers in Leicester, England, since 1926, enters the electric vehicle market in 1934 — building both cars and milk floats marketed under the Wilson Electric name, and such businesses as family owned Kean’s Fine Dry Cleaning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are finally shifting from horse drawn carriage delivery to electric trucks. This last becomes the trend for battery-powered transports, which slowly fades as a viable passenger car option and begin to be commercially developed for almost exclusive military/food/retail/mail delivery. And as the 1930s come to a close, it becomes clear that the gasoline engine has won the race.
The Phantom Auto Surprises Milwaukee
Auto distributor, Achen Motor surprises and delights Milwaukee locals with a demonstration of the mysterious “Phantom Auto” — and its control car — a realization of Francis Houdina’s “Linrrican Wonder.”
1939 World’s Fair
At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, various exhibitors present experiences that reflect the fair’s mission statement of “The World of Tomorrow.” Among them is auto giant, General Motors (GM) and its Futurama attraction. The innovative carmaker — that would go on to create telematic marvel OnStar — shares its vision of a utopian city with "abundant sunshine, fresh air [and] fine green parkways" upon which cars would drive themselves. Designed by eccentric and talented theatrical and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes, Futurama is one of the top exhibits at an already legendary World’s Fair.
A Rationing Response
As the Second World War takes hold throughout Europe, rationing of everything from sugar to stockings becomes a way of life. Gasoline is also in short supply, made readily available only to the military. In response, innovative automakers bring the electric car back in full force, meeting the needs — sometimes in secret — of a public seeking ways to take to the open road.
Light and Easy
Pierre Faure creates the “Faure,” the battery-powered answer to France’s gas ration. It is available as a 3-wheeled “two- or three-seater sedan” or as a pick-up truck, and runs on 72 volts using 6 batteries. The models travel between 50 to 75 km (31.07 to 46.60 mi) on a single charge and up to 45 km/h (27 mph). The diminutive vehicle can be charged from any 110-volt house outlet within 12 hours with a 220-volt transformer offered to cut the time. Known alternatively as the “Electra,” it is more than 10x less expensive to maintain than a gasoline car. The bodywork is made of wood — the most available material during war time—and the 20 Electra/Faure models serve a limited public well during a time of crisis until it falls into post - war oblivion in 1947.
Calling on an Electric Legacy
Former manufacturers of electric cabs at the end of the 19th century, Louis Kriéger and Charles Mildé collaborate during the war to create the Mildé-Kriéger through the French automaker, Corre-La Licorne. From spring 1941 until late summer/early autumn 1942, 100 copies are designed and built in Courbevoie, France, until production is finally prohibited by the German government. After finding it difficult to obtain materials and services to continue producing vehicles due to exclusion from the Pons Plan , the Corre-La Licorne Company goes out of business completely by 1950.
Innovative Response to Force
Forced to turn over its auto manufacturing plants to the Germans during the occupation for war production, Peugeot works in secret to research alternative fuels to the heavily rationed gasoline to build solutions for the general public. The company creates the electric Voiture Legere de Ville (Light City Car), aka VLV. Powered by four 12-volt batteries under its hood, 377 are made before the German government shuts them down.
Party of Un
There is something to be said for the power of self-reliance. When the Germans make it clear gasoline will not be made available to private citizens, French industrial designer and engineer, Paul Arzens, quickly comes up with a solution — build his own electric car. The L’Œuf Électrique (The Electric Egg) microcar becomes the designer’s personal passion, made of new materials—hand-molded aluminum for the body and the newly introduced transparent Plexiglass for the windshield and curved side doors — and capable of speeds up to 70 km/h (44 mph) with one passenger, or 60 km/h (37 mph) with two for a 100 km (63 mi) drive on a single charge. The one-of-a-kind, egg-shaped electric wonder becomes Arzens’ ultimate weapon for combatting both the French winters and German occupation.
A Singular Car for a Singular Purpose
As soon as the Occupation begins, engineer Hubert Pascal establishes Véhicules Électriques Stéla with the sole purpose of building specially made electric cars for the public. The vehicles are called Stéla, which stands for Service de la Traction Électrique LÉgere á Accumulateur (Electric Traction Service). Unlike other alternative fuel options of that time, which are built on existing traditional chassis, the Stela is designed and developed exclusively with electric in mind from start to finish. The interior is spacious to allow for up to four passengers to ride comfortably with the batteries placed in the rear trunk. Produced in small numbers during the war, the Prime Minister of Vichy purchases two in which to be publicly driven to push home the “save gasoline” message. While the cars fall out of favor at war’s end, some Stélas continue on as taxi cabs in the city of Lyon until 1950.
The Post-War, Pre-LEAF Tama EV
As Japan switches to a peacetime economy, 200 employees from Tachikawa Aircraft transfer over to the brand new Tokyo Electric Automobile Co., Ltd., which is in the midst of developing an electric car for the Land of the Rising Sun. The older battery-power is chosen over the now globally accepted ICE due to extreme Post-War gas shortages. The fledgling auto company creates a 2-seater truck prototype with a 4.5-horsepower motor called “Tama” in honor of Tokyo Electric Auto’s location. It tops out at 34 km/h (21 mph) and is soon joined by a 2-door, four seat passenger car with a cruising range of 65 km (40 miles) on one charge. It’s not only unique in look, but has innovative ideas on where to place its battery compartment, which is in the cabin floor with rollers for ease of switching out old dynamos for new ones. The company changes its name to Prince Motor Company in 1951 and becomes part of Nissan in 1966.
The Teetor Cruise Control: Proof that Vision Comes from Experience
Prolific Automotive Hall of Fame engineer, Ralph Teetor, is a consummate passenger. During a car ride with his attorney, he notices the lawyer has a tendency to slow the car down when he’s talking and give it gas when he’s listening. This slow/fast back and forth annoys Ralph, and he decides to do something about it. After a bunch of tinkering, perfecting, and testing, he develops a device to stabilize and control the speed of the car. Ralph patents what becomes the first cruise control, but continues to work on it to get it truly production ready. By 1958, Ralph’s visionary device has gone through several patents and is commercialized first in the Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor models, and made standard in all Cadillacs in 1960, a feat made that much more impressive by the fact that Ralph Teetor — who was building miniature dynamos and other machinery at 10 years-old, then went on to craft a small car to carry him around his hometown and the surrounding countryside at age 12 — has been blind since age 5.
Ukrainian Electric Vehicle Production Gets a Boost from Soviet Union
In its first post-war years, Ukraine begins production on two electric car models at once for commercial operation. With an infusion of capital from the Soviet Union, the East-Central European country builds four vehicles with a carrying capacity of 0.5 and 1.5 tons for use as postal trucks in Moscow. By 1958, Ukraine presents ten more prototypes for mail carriage in Leningrad.
Rock & Roll, Shaken Not Stirred and a Ring to Rule Them All
It is the era of notable firsts: I Love Lucy premieres on television, the Mr. Potato Head toy is introduced, the first hydrogen bomb is tested, and the secret herbs and spices of Kentucky Fried Chicken launch a restaurant franchise. It is also when a young Mississippi native wanders into a Memphis recording studio to record a song for his “mama” in a voice that’s a unique mix of bluegrass, gospel and blues, a rakish British intelligence officer introduces the world to a spy whose extraordinary talents of espionage are only matched by his prowess with the ladies, and an Oxford English Language and Literature professor takes readers on a journey to destroy a plain - looking gold ring in order to save a place called “Middle Earth.” The Post World War II landscape is full of hope and endless possibility — NATO is created and new roads are built in the U.S.; immense and fantastical innovation — the first hard disk is invented by IBM, and Sputnik 1 and 2 are launched; and great fear — the first hydrogen bomb is tested and bomb shelters are built to protect against the Red Scare. As the decade comes to an end, many believe the post war years will only get better when an American “king” and his “queen” prepare to ascend to the White House, thus beginning the age of Camelot.
The GM Firebird II Gets People Talking
Starting in 1953, General Motors’ visionary designer, Harley Earl, creates a series of concept cars to present at and inspire action in the attendants of the annual General Motors Motorama. Firebird XP-21, aka Firebird I, is the first to be shown at the 1953 show — a test vehicle with rocket capability not meant for daily passenger use, but to highlight the carmaker’s technical know-how and mechanical proficiency. It’s basically a rocket on wheels. The Firebird II is revealed in 1956 with a more user-friendly design — a 4-seater with room enough for a family and the first use of disc brakes on all four wheels. This concept vehicle includes the ability to communicate with the planned GM/RCA electrically enabled autonomous highway to receive traffic information as well as being put on autopilot to be autonomously “driven” by impulses embedded in the road.
Autonomous Highway System Tests
GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair sparks the interest of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), leading to the two partnering by 1953 to develop a scale model of an automated highway system and begin testing. A prototype for the futuristic highway is built with cars conceived to communicate and interact with the specially constructed road. Per the famous James Wetmore book, Driving the Dream, 1953 sees that “GM and RCA had developed a scale model automated highway system, which allowed them to begin experimenting with how electronics could be used to steer and maintain proper following distance.”
Testing a 20 Year Dream
Chevrolet and RCA test the vision of an automated highway by affixing “pick-up coils” to the front-end of a 1958 Chevy LaSabre with the goal of seeing if they are able to "sense the alternating current of a wire embedded in the road and would adjust the steering wheel accordingly," as Jameson Wetmore chronicled. Per GM, the test is a rousing success, with the auto maker claiming, "The car rolled along the two-lane check road and negotiated the banked turn-around loops at either end without the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.”
A Promise of a Driverless Car Future Creates a Sensation
This late 50s version of “travel in the future” promises a fully-autonomous ride by the year 1976, an exciting way to ring in the country’s bicentennial, thanks to the constantly touted electrically enabled autonomous highways.
Firebird III Keeps GM’s Future Vision Alive
GM moves one step closer to fully-autonomous driving with its Firebird III, created in 1958 and presented at the 1959 Motorama. The two-seater is opened by an ultrasonic key — a click of the button and the door unlocks via sonic waves — and is controlled by a joystick set in the center panel. With the flick of a switch, the vehicle can be shifted over to autonomous driving, receiving electrical impulses from the GM/RCA autonomous highway and can be switched back to manual drive easily.
The Henney Kilowatt: An Attempt at Resurrecting a Bygone Era
The once-dominant electric car has since been eclipsed by the less expensive, more powerful gas engine. In an effort to return the battery to its former automotive glory, President of the National Union Electric Company and Eureka Williams Company, C. Russell Feldmann jumpstarts a project with Henney Motor Company. Henney has been in the custom coach building business since 1868 and is well-known for its made-to-order limousines, ambulances, and hearses. Using a Renault Dauphine chassis for its lighter body and rear-mounted engine compartment that’s perfect for fitting an electric motor, the team employs the talents of Victor Wouk, an electrical engineer from Caltech and a pioneer of hybrid electric cars. Along with other Caltech brains, Wouk produces The Henney Kilowatt first as a 36-volt car with a top speed of 40 mph (64 km/h). It is soon felt to be impractical and is redesigned in 1960 as a 72-volt reaching a top speed of close to 60 mph (97 km/h) with a range of over 60 miles (97 km). While 100 are commissioned, only 47 Henneys are sold, 32 to electrical utility companies.
The Space Race and Automotive Ingenuity:
4 October 1957. It is the day when Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, is launched into an orbit of the Earth. Soviet Union based, it signals the start of a competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that dominates the Cold War Era. It also signals the beginning of generations of space exploration and a significant impact on automotive innovation, an unintentional yet invaluable side-effect.
Although electric cars and unmanned vehicles are nothing new in the world — engineers, scientists, and visionaries have tinkered with the notion for centuries — investigating the final frontier of space and the planets that make up the different galaxies bring about exciting and game-changing technologies not only for intergalactic travel, but in the everyday transportation of humans on Planet Earth’s land, sea, and air.
Fly Me to the Moon: The Cart
With the quest for space in high gear, researchers around the world ponder the actual landing of vehicles on the moon — unmanned, at first. At Stanford University in California, Mechanical Engineering (ME) graduate student, James Adams, creates The Stanford Cart as part of a NASA project he is doing in his work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Called Project Prospector, it investigates whether an operator on earth can drive a moon - based vehicle by a radio control link simply by watching images transmitted back to the blue planet from a mounted TV camera. Adams conducts a variety of tests — using both 2-wheel and 4-wheel steering — and ultimately concludes two issues due to delayed communications between cart and driver: 1) the operator tends to over steer the cart and lose control, and 2) the vehicle won’t be able to stay in control if it goes more than 0.2 mph (0.3 kph). That is approximately the same speed as the fastest recorded slug and means it would take The Stanford Cart 2.72 days to travel the entire square footage of a standard football field.
It’s a Boat! It’s a Car! It’s BOTH!
The 1960s are a time of creative innovation – the audio cassette, Kevlar, soft contact lenses, the hand-held calculator and the artificial human heart are among the decade’s inventions. Into this comes the Amazing Electric Amphicar, a combo automobile/boat. Built in Berlin, Germany, it is a battery-powered novelty that imports almost 4,000 models to the U.S. over its eight-year run, even garnering the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who takes it out for a drive/dip with friends one sunny afternoon.
A One-of-a-Kind Electric Kit Car
Kelsen Manufacturing creates three-wheel electric cars that are unique to each owner. With exclusive hood emblems from the 1959 Ford Galaxy, the little Sports Riders come in primary colors of blue, red, white, and Daytona yellow. Production is limited and model years unclear, but somewhere between 1963-1973, the electric cars jet about California, ferrying people to the beach, the mountains, and throughout the neighborhoods of the Golden State. The eclectic vehicles are now collectors items.
Stanford Keeps Hope Alive
Another Stanford University ME graduate student, Paul W. Braisted, decides to take a look at how to improve the controllability of The Stanford Cart. He hypothesizes that adding an analog computer that can predict where the cart plans to travel — providing preemptive commands by placing a bright dot on the TV screen where the cart will be based on the timing of when the steering command would be given — the vehicle could be controlled at 5 mph (8 km/h). However, due to delays in receiving the radio waves through space, there still appears to be no way to avoid hitting obstacles. Braisted completes his dissertation in 1963, but never gets the opportunity to see it put into practical tests due to President John F. Kennedy’s 12 September 1962 announcement of a U.S. manned mission to the moon.
Stanford SAILs Into Innovating AI and Machine Vision
The Stanford Cart lays dormant until 1966 when Les Earnest, new Executive Officer of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), talks James Adams into allowing the department to use the cart in its quest to create a robotic vehicle using visual guidance. Although the radio links and other electronics have vanished from the prototype, SAIL’s Rodney Schmidt is able to build a low power television transmitter and radio control link for the project. The Federal Communications Commision (FCC) grants the lab an experimental TV license to conduct tests and the cart is soon being piloted throughout the neighborhood while watching television views from a desk. Schmidt is finally able to get the cart to autonomously traverse a high contrast white line under controlled lighting conditions at a speed of approximately 0.8 mph (1.3 km/h).
Ford Focuses on Electricity
Fifty-four years and countless models after Henry Ford and Thomas Edison collaborated on an electric car in 1913, the Ford Motor Company presents its battery-powered Comuta. The four-seater holds two adults and two children, has a top speed of 40 mph (64.37 km/h) and a range of 40 miles (64.37 km) — if driven at 25 mph (40.23 km/h). Developed by Ford of Britain, Comuta has dual DC electric motors on its rear wheels and power comes from four 12-volt lead-acid batteries. At its unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show, Ford of Britain’s assistant managing director Leonard Crossland comments, “We expect electric cars to be commercially feasible within the next 10 years...” Only two Comutas are built and the little car never goes into production.
After the failed attempt of Lunokhod 0 on 19 February 1969 — a crash during a failed start of the launcher — Russia successfully launches the Lunokhod 1 (Луноход) aboard the Luna 17 spacecraft on 10 November 1970. It enters lunar orbit on 15 November and soft-lands in the Sea of Rains on 17 November, becoming the first remote-controlled vehicle to not only land on the moon, but any space based surface. From its landing until 14 September 1971, Lunokhod 1 successfully communicates with earth, collecting soil and rock samples, and transmitting close-up and panoramic images on the moon. The 11 months of operation is a durability record Lunokhod 1 holds for over 30 years.
The Best Laid Plans
Mars-3 is the Soviet Union’s mission to get a rover on Mars to study its surface. The PROP-M, which stands for Device Evaluation Terrain - Mars in Russian, is a robot a bit smaller than a breadbox, weighs 4.5 kilos (9.92 pounds), and is to be tethered to the Mars-3 lander by a power and data cable. It moves autonomously on two rotating skis gathering scientific data from the red planet to share back on Earth. Although the Mars-3 lander successfully arrives on Mars, all contact is lost 20 seconds after impact and the PROP-M never gets a chance to be deployed.
As part of the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod (Russian for “Moonwalker”) program, Lunokhod 2 is the second of the series of unmanned lunar rovers the U.S.S.R. designs to land on the moon. While initially designed to support manned space missions, Lunokhod 2, like its predecessor Lunokhod 1, is a remote controlled robot that explores the lunar surface, performing a variety of research jobs in its collection of and transmission of scientific information. It runs for over four months and covers 39 km (24 mi) of the Moon’s surface.
Moon Buggies Dominate
NASA includes the U.S. Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) in three subsequent Apollo missions — Apollo 15, 16 and 17 — from 1971 until 1972. Four battery-powered four-wheeled rovers are built by Boeing for a final cost of $38,000,000 — one for each mission plus a fourth used for spare parts after further Apollo missions are cancelled. The rovers are built with a maximum speed of approximately 8 mph (13 km/h) although astronaut Captain Eugene Cernan reaches 11.2 mph (18 km/h), which makes him the undisputed — and unofficial — holder of the lunar land-speed record.
The Age of Global Innovation and Hometown Frustration
The glow of the free love, “turn on, tune in, drop out” mid-late sixties has faded as The Cold War heats up, creating an even more intense state of Post-World War II geopolitical tension between powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states) and those in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies and others). While there is no full agreement on the timeframe, it is commonly held that the period between 1947 — the year the Truman Doctrine (a U.S. foreign policy pledging to aid nations threatened by Soviet expansionism) is implemented — and 1991 — the year the Soviet Union collapses, is one full of exceptional strife, massive economic upheaval, technological exploration, and general unrest.
The 1970s fall directly in the middle of that transformative era with some exceptional highs — NASA's Explorer 1, the first American satellite and Explorer program spacecraft, reenters Earth's atmosphere after 12 years in orbit; confusing lows—Vietnam War – Operation Jefferson Glenn: The United States 101st Airborne Division and the South Vietnamese 1st Infantry Division initiate a new operation in Thua Thien Province (the operation ends in October 1971); and international, life-changing shows of resistance — the Valley Forge anti-war rally attended by future Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary-of-State John Kerry, and such actors as Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. As the world shifts and changes, so does the landscape of how people get from place to place, and seeking ways for the humble car to be more environmentally and user friendly becomes a priority amidst a crippling energy crisis in the U.S. and abroad.
Like, Far Out Innovation to the Max
With a Popular Mechanics in hand, a VW Beetle in his garage, and five years to spare, Iowan Glenn Legrand builds his own electric car, which he begins in 1970 and completes in 1975. Bright orange with a combination polyurethane foam and fiberglass body, and a purely electric engine, the “Legrand” is based partially on old Popular Mechanics plans. It can go 81 km (50 miles) on a single charge and has a top speed of 89 km/h (55 mph). The car has two gears — "Forward" and "Reverse" — and where the gas cap once lived there is now an electrical outlet that allows a driver to simply plug in and charge up at home.
Brits Host an Electric Revival
In 1966, the United Kingdom Electricity council holds a competition for the design of a new electric car. Enfield Automotive beats out such rivals as Ford for the contract and goes on to build 3 prototype Enfield 465s in 1969 to test out the capability, equipping the squat, boxy 2-seater with a 48 V, 4.65 bhp (3 kW) electric motor in a plastic body. After some testing, the 465 morphs into the Enfield 8000—aka the E8000ECC or Electric City Car — with an 8 bhp (6 kW) motor and aluminium body. It is introduced at the first ever international symposium on electric vehicles held in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 1969, and begins a tour of America. The little car catches the eye of California Governor Ronald Reagan, who is completely enamored by it. The Governor comes up with a plan to provide free E8000ECC’s to the residents of Santa Catalina Island where petroleum based automobiles are heavily restricted. Designed by John Ackroyd, 100 Enfield 8000 models are built on the Isle of Wight off the Southern Coast of England, but never make it to America and fail to go beyond a few collectors due to its limited speed and range — 40 mph (64 km/h) and between 35-55 miles (56-89 km) — and high price tag of £2,600 ($6,240 USD in 1970), a cost that can buy two Minis capable of going faster and farther.
The Electric BMW Goes the Distance at the Olympics
BMW unveils a completely green, zero emissions vehicle at the summer Olympics in Munich as proof of its environmental friendliness. The revamped 1602 model — 1602e — replaces the 1.6 liter 84 hp engine, which weighs in excess of 1 ton, with a battery pack that include twelve rechargeable 12v Varta batteries that have a total weight of 350 kg or 772 pounds. The battery pack charges a 43 hp (32 kWH) Bosch electric motor that offers a range of 30 km (18 miles) when driven at 50 km/h (31.07 mph), but when driving at the car’s top speed of 100 km/h (62.14 mph), the range is shorter. It accompanies Olympic marathon runners during their race due to its lack of harmful emissions, but never goes into production.
A Company of Action
Copper Development Association, Inc. (CDA) isn’t a car manufacturer. They are the market development, engineering and information services division of the copper industry. So, it probably comes as a surprise when it begins creating electric cars extensively using copper to power and develop four models between 1970 and 1975. These include the CDA Electric Runabout, the Copper Electric Van III designed from the ground up by CDA, and the Copper Electric Town Car, a two-seat hatch-back model that has an energy cost of 2-3 cents per mile and a top speed of 55 mph (88.51 km/h) with a range on one charge of 120 miles (193.12 km).
E-Bullet From Colorado
The use of electro - magnetic forces is put to the test with the linear induction motor test vehicle (LIMTV) in Pueblo, Colorado, in March. Designed to travel at speeds up to 250 mph (402.34 km/h), the LIMTV is put through its paces at the Department of Transportation’s high speed ground test center, and shows off the benefits of its speed and noiseless propulsion system.
The Next Generation of Electric Vehicles
The energy crisis spurs a movement, prompting big and small automakers to explore options for alternative fuel vehicles.This is best displayed at the first-ever Symposium on Low Pollution Power Systems Development, which takes place from 14-19 October at Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Marriott Motor Inn. Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s office of Air and Water Programs, such heavy hitters as Chrysler and General Motors present some unique alternative fuel options, including a GM prototype for an urban electric car.
The Crisis Heard Around the World
In early October 1973, one of many Arab-Israeli wars begins on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. The Soviet Union throws its support behind Egypt and Syria, while U.S. President Richard Nixon resupplies Israel. In response, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) reduces petroleum production and sets an oil embargo on shipments for the U.S. and Netherlands, Israel’s main supporters. The embargo and cuts in oil production continue beyond the end of Yom Kippur, creating an international energy crisis. Within three months, oil prices per barrel quadruples — from $3 per to $12 — leading to fuel shortages, lines at gas stations, and huge price hikes at the pump in America. The embargo is finally lifted in March 1974, but the energy crisis forever changes the international landscape— not just in oil consumption, but natural gas and electric as well — and deals a giant hit to the U.S. automotive industry, which has taken the traditionally low gas prices for granted and consistently built bigger, more gas guzzling cars. It is the catalyst that allows Japanese car makers to begin their slow yet steady domination of the American auto market with smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and policy to be made in the midst of environmental impact concerns.
Electric Trolleys Serve the People
Trolleybuses have been serving the people of Belarus since 1952 when MRTTZ—now known as Belkommunmash — is commissioned to repair electric trams and trolleys in Minsk in 1973. The system in Belarus is the third largest in the world — behind Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Trolley wires line streets, ferrying hundreds of people a day via clean energy, and the company naturally moves toward actual production of trams and trolleys. Belkommunmash presents a hybrid bus with a diesel motor generator at the “Electrotrans” exhibition in Moscow, Russia, in 2012, praised as “the best vehicle” by visitors to the event. In 2015, after over 50 years of running on overhead electric lines, the model 32100D prototype trolleybus is engineered with a lithium-titanium drive system, making it possible to run long distances independent of the above ground cables.
Citicar: It Thought It Could and It Did
Produced by Sebring-Vanguard, Inc., the CitiCar is a wedge-shaped electric vehicle whose design is inspired by the Club Car golf cart and a response to the fuel crisis. Originally created as the Vanguard Coupe — also known as the EV coupe — it is transformed into the CitiCar when the EV doesn’t garner enough immediate orders. Within two years, CitiCar produces enough vehicles to make it the number 6 auto maker in the U.S., just behind GM, Ford, Chrysler, AMC, and Checker Motors.
An Italian Mini from a Storied Designer
The name Zagato is synonymous with beautiful and high-end everyday sports car—and racing—design. Caught up in the frenzied quest for fuel economy, the famous design company creates the Zagato Zele or the Elcar. Contrary to the awe inspiring, sinuous lines the company is known for, Zele is high and square, made of fiberglass and comes in 1000, 1500, and 2000 watts. This 2-door electric microcar derives its suspension and chassis from the Fiat 500 and Fiat 124, has a range of 50 miles (80 km), and sells 500 models in both Europe and the U.S. over its two years of existence.
The Electruck Delivers
The 1970 purchase of Kaiser Jeep by AMC leads to a rejuvenation and refocus of the failing former army vehicles. AMC finds new life by creating the Dispatcher Jeep or DJ series, and builds the DJ-5E or Electruck delivery van. Able to reach 40 mph (64.37 km/h) on a charge that will take it 29 miles (46.7 km), the Electruck is used by the USPS for mail delivery and becomes a common sight on American streets.
A Practical Testing Ground for Batteries
Since 1860, Lucas Industries Limited in Birmingham, England, has been manufacturing components first for the motor industry and have come to include aerospace. In 1970, the company begins investigating electric cars as a way to test out the different batteries it is creating. By late 1975/1976, there are payload vans, a personnel carrier, a 34-passenger city bus, and two city taxis on the roads, all electric, all Lucas. Research into the capability of the lightweight lead acid batteries the company is developing begins in earnest.
Japan Presents a Truly Autonomous Car
Sadayuki Tsugawa and his colleagues at Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory introduce what is the first car that can truly be called self-driving. Named “Intelligent Vehicle” by the team, this vision-based autonomous car includes an on-board vision system that uses cameras to help it steer on the road with the aid of outside equipment. It is capable of speeds up to 30 km/h (18.6 mph).
A 1960s Experiment Enters the Market
Amitron is an advanced experimental electric subcompact car — think Smart Car — built in 1967 as a collaboration between American Motors Corporation (AMC) and Gulton Industries. It has advanced battery design and can go 150 miles (240 km) on a single charge. Due to cost and other issues, the little car never gets fully developed until 1977 when it is revived as the Electron, one of AMC’s “Concept 80” show cars.
A Spark of Swedish Ingenuity
The concept car is nothing new for Volvo. The Venus Bilo — an innovative aerodynamically inclined vehicle — is prototyped in 1933, five years before GM's 1938 Harley Earl designed Buick Y-Job, long-thought to be the first ever concept car. This research and development continues through each decade, allowing the company to learn from each concept to inform a production model. When the straightforward - named Volvo Electric Car is tested in 1977, it is two decades before the Daimler Smart Fortwo — now most commonly known as Smart Car — but comes at the wrong time and never gets beyond the prototype stage. While it can travel through the city on a single charge for up to two hours, the inconsistent handling and heavy weight push it back to the drawing board until the world is ready for the environmentally friendly compact.
Interest in Electric Cars Fades
While the energy crisis prompts a resurgence in electric car interest, the vehicles still have drawbacks compared to their gas-powered alternatives. With limitations in performance and range, slower speeds, and a higher price tag, by the close of the 70s the renewed appeal of battery-powered automobiles once again fades.
The Second Oil Shock Felt 'Round the World'
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign collapses in Iran in late 1978, a culmination of the Iranian Revolution begun earlier that year and the leadership of the grand ayatollah of the Islamic republic, Sheikh Khomeini. This leads to a 7 percent decline of global oil production from the embattled country — output down by 4.8 million barrels a day — sending some into hoarder mode of petrol supplies and a giant rise in prices at the pump. While not as severe as the crisis in 1973, the U.S. population in particular panics, racing to gas stations to purchase fuel in droves, and leading to a call for rationing and long lines to get a fill-up or even a few gallons. It is estimated that Americans waste upwards of 150,000 barrels of oil per day idling their engines in these lines.
The Red Bug Gets a Hybrid Sibling
Briggs & Stratton, more commonly known for its outdoor power equipment engines — and the infamous Red Bug, once the world’s least expensive car—presents the six-wheeled B & S Hybrid. Running both on gas and an electric - only plug-in, the unique vehicle is given two additional wheels to help with the heavy battery load — it runs on a 1,000-pound pack. It travels between 30 - 60 mi (48.3 - 96.6 km) on electric before needing to switch over to gas. When it’s in hybrid mode, the car that combines parts and looks from the Volkswagen Scirocco, Ford Pinto and an electric six-wheeled car by the Canadian-based Marathon Electric Car Company can go up to 200 miles (321.87 km) without needing a charge or fill-up. Economical, but exceedingly slow — its top speed is 49.71 mph (80 km/h) and takes up to a full minute to reach 37.3 mph (60 km/h)—the car never goes to production.
Hans Moravec updates James Adams’ Stanford Cart with the aid of roboticist, Victor Scheinman. The two add a device that moves the camera from side to side, obtaining multiple views without moving the cart itself. It successfully navigates its way around obstacles—without human intervention—in a controlled room over the course of five hours by using this ‘multi-ocular vision.’
Meeting a DOE Challenge
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) responds to the second gas crisis by calling on car makers to find a way to bring an electric car that costs less than $5,000 to the market. The criteria is that the battery-powered vehicle go 0-30 mph (0-48.3 km/h) in 9 seconds, have a top speed of 65 mph (104.61 km/h) and a range of 70 to 100 miles (112.7 to 160.93 km) on a charge. Chrysler takes up the challenge, pulling out the gas engine on its company - saving K Car and replacing it with an electric motor. Chrysler names it the 1979 Chrysler ETV-1 and it meets all of the DOE requests… then the crisis ends, gas prices fall dramatically and Americans re-embrace the big, powerful, gas-hungry models they’ve come to love. The ETV-1 fades into obscurity, leaving behind a legacy that is picked up almost two decades later.
The Dawning of the First Age of Autonomous Vehicles
As the electric car fades back into the shadows, research into autonomous driving heats up, creating a new focus for automotive innovation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) becomes a key promoter of self-guided vehicle innovation as do universities like MIT and Carnegie Melon.
The era of big hair, Generation X, PacMan and MTV spawns a fierce beginning to a lasting goal in transportation, inspiring a new batch of next gen automobile inventors.
American tastes have turned away from electric and the 80s see a rise in bigger, better gas-powered vehicles. Minivans are as much the rage with consumers as muscle and high-performance cars like the Pontiac Trans Am and the DeLorean. Europe, however, is slow to give up on the alternative power solution, and carmakers and innovators make several valiant attempts to create viable, marketable options for the general public.
An USPS Experiment Gone Right
The Grumman LLV (Long Life Vehicle) is exclusively made for the United States Postal Service and includes a variety of durable, right-hand drive delivery trucks and vans that can take a beating and keep going. Taking into consideration environmental impact and energy conservation, the company decides to experiment with battery-powered options starting in the early 1980s and come up with the Kurbwatt. Compact and quirky, this little van runs on 14 six-volt, deep-cycle batteries that can be recharged overnight. Its top speed is 55 mph (88.51 km/h), although it’ll probably never come close to that speed as it’s built pretty much to do the methodical work of delivering mail. The entire line exists throughout the 1980s and some end up being used by private owners as reliable urban electric vehicles (UEV)—quick, easy ways to get around town.
The Pioneer of The Autonomous Car Title
German aerospace engineer, Ernst Dickmanns, head of the German Aerospace Center, goes into 1977 with the idea of developing “vision” for computers and vehicles, and begins seriously working on the idea for space and air vehicles. He is soon drawn to motor vehicles when he is approached by Daimler-Benz to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the company’s first horseless carriage. Throughout the 80s, the engineer initiates several self-driving car projects, inventing “dynamic vision” — a way of letting the imaging system filter out distractions and direct focus on relevant objects. This technology becomes the basis for all future self-driving imaging capability and earns Dickmanns the title of “the pioneer of the autonomous car.”
DARPA’s First True Challenge
DARPA pushes forward on its quest to develop intelligent computer systems and awards $10.6 million to Martin Marietta — the “Martin” in “Lockheed Martin” — in his bid to build an autonomous land vehicle (ALV). ALV is equipped with a computer that receives images from television cameras and laser scanners capturing the different features of the terrain surrounding it. The ALV travels without any human intervention at a top speed of 6 mph (9.66 km/h) and its equipment processes a frame of imagery every 2.2 seconds. Struggles with various terrain, tracking of the road and other factors create issues for the ALV, and the program is canceled in 1987, but bestows a wealth of information for future incarnations.
Carnegie Mellon Joins the Self-Driving Race
Dean Pomerleau, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), oversees the practical building of what starts as a research project on computer controlled vehicles back in 1984, the mission of CMU’s brand new NavLab . Navlab 1 or ALVINN — Autonomous Land Vehicle In a Neural Network — is born using a Chevrolet Panel Van. The ALVINN autonomously travels through the CMU campus into the 1990s.
The Volkswagen “Electric Offensive”
Starting in 1976, Volkswagen establishes a goal of creating electric vehicles for the public. This is tested with a battery pack in the first-generation Golf — prototype only — and leads to the creation of two limited edition options by 1984 exclusive to the European market.
Take One — Mark II Golf CityStromer
The fully electric Mark II Golf CityStromer makes its debut in 1984. The CityStromer—from the German word “Strom,” which means either “Current” or “Hobo,” depending on who you talk to—powers up with 96 volts of lead-acid gel batteries, has a top speed of 60 mph (96.56 km/h), and a range of up to 50-60 miles (80.47 km-96.56 km). Never intended to be a fast, high-performance vehicle, the CityStromer is an experimental city car meant for easy urban transportation. Just over 100 are built with a price tag of just over 45,000DM (~U.S.$34,000) and sold between 1984-1985.
100 Years of Innovation Kicks Off a New Era
Daimler-Benz celebrates its 100th birthday by approaching Ernst Dickmanns and the German Aerospace Center with a large-scale research project. The company known for its Mercedes-Benz vehicles wants to look into new automotive technologies, one of them being autonomous driving. This leads to the VaMoRs, a 5 ton Mercedes van outfitted with cameras, microprocessors, and sensors to autonomously navigate through unpopulated city streets. In 1987, the car drives more than 90 km/h (56 mph) for roughly 20 kilometers (12.43 mi), making Daimler-Benz the first automaker to invest in and achieve self-driving success.
Take Two — Jetta CityStromer
Volkswagen adds a second, more powerful electric car to its arsenal with the Jetta CityStromer. It has a 26 - kWH sodium - sulphur pack instead of lead-acid gel batteries, is capable of traveling up to 75 miles (120.7 km) on a single charge and has a top speed of 65 mph (104.61 km/h). More advanced and powerful also means a higher price tag. This version of the CityStromer is priced at 50,000DM (~$37,000), is sold from 1984 to 1987, and sets the stage for future EV development.
PROMETHEUS Seeks to Bring Autonomy to the People
Begun on 01 October 1986, Eureka PROMETHEUS — PROgraM for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety—Pan - European project is begun by Daimler-Benz and several other European - based automakers, electronics companies, institutes and universities. Its goal is researching and developing autonomous road vehicles and its related technologies. The total estimated cost of the program is €749 million ($876.64 million) and is the largest of its kind in history.
Compact Danish Ingenuity
Over in Denmark, the Danish company, El Trans A/S, develops the Mini-El, a 3-wheel, lightweight electric car for one person. Access is gained not through traditional doors, but lifting up the entire top-half of the vehicle, which is hinged. Considered an electric motorcycle in many countries, the controls are the same as in a car and the vehicle has the ability to carry a child (up to 30 kg/66 lbs.) behind the driver seat facing backwards. Using a 36-volt, 2.5 kW motor, top speed ranges from 40 km/h to 55 km/h (24.85 to 34.18 mph) and a range of 60-70 km (37.28 to 43.5 mi).
A People’s Car Goes Electric
Affordable, light and simple, the VAZ-111E is introduced at the 1989 Moscow International Motor Show as the battery-electric version of Russia’s popular VAZ-2108, the people’s car. It is powered by 120v batteries stored in the engine bay, beneath the seats and in the cargo bay, and is capable of going 100 km (62.14 miles) on a single charge. It is produced as a limited edition, special-order option and modeled after the super-mini Japanese kei cars .
World Class Innovation
The ESORO E2 is the first electric vehicle to come out of the innovative company that goes on to become a partner/contractor for various consumer-focused entities in 1990. The three-wheel E2 is considered the world’s most efficient two-seater with the planet’s lowest aerodynamic drag for its model-type and due to it being the first lightweight electric car with ASR/ABS—anti-slip regulation/anti-lock brake system. It’s also exceedingly fast, winning 8 alternative fuel competitions from 1988-1991. Running on rechargeable lead-acid batteries, it also pulls its energy from the sun with 4.5 sq. m of stationary photovoltaic solar cells.
New Regulations from Both Sides of the Pond Prompt Innovation
The 1990s see stronger regulations on emissions throughout the world with California leading the charge in the U.S. due to heavy congestion in the Los Angeles metropolitan area — the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requires the full transition to zero emissions cars by the year 2025. Over in Europe, the EU presents different stages of compliance for member countries beginning in 1993 and proposes to eradicate all emissions from its roads by 2050. This environmental shift causes automakers to begin both modifying popular models into EVs capable of performing more in line with gasoline-powered cars and designing wholly new automobiles to fit this new age.
While the environmental impact of vehicles weighs heavily in this decade, rising concerns over traffic fatalities and congestion create opportunity for more intensive, practical research on self-driving cars.
Numerous major companies and research organizations start developing working prototype electric, hybrid and autonomous vehicles, setting the stage for creating a new normal on roads around the world.
Answering the Call for Solar Power
When you hear the name Kyocera, it evokes the eponymous flip phone that helps spawn the smartphone revolution. However, in 1990 the company decides to use the issues of traffic congestion to a vehicle’s advantage — make a solar model that pulls from the energy of the sun. The Japanese company develops Solar Commuter Vehicle—SCV-0 — an electric car covered with solar cells that help extend the car’s range by recharging its batteries as it runs. When fully charged it travels at a top speed of 40 mph (64.4 km/h) over a 70 mile (112.6 km) range. If the day is very sunny, that capability goes up to 100 miles (160.93 km). Because the car is a solar/electric hybrid, it charges on a home outlet at night or when it’s overcast. The hope is that within 5 years, SCV-0 will be in full production. Unfortunately, with a $70,000 price tag ($130,961.59 in 2017) and the weight issues it faces with over 23 square feet of solar cells attached to its already battery-heavy body, SCV-0 never moves beyond prototype. Other attempts are made with the SCV-2, 3 and 4, but by 1998, the company moves on to providing automotive components and no longer builds its own cars.
The Microcar Invades Norway’s Roads
Norway embraces the lower emissions policies with a vengeance, prompting Knud Erik Westergaard to sell his company, KEW Industries — makers of industrial washing equipment and high pressure cleaners — and establish Kewet to make electric cars. Standing for Knud Erik Westergaard Elektrisk Transport, the mission of the Kewet EV is to make it “the best in the city.” Wedge - shaped and colorful, this small 3-seater uses a 48 volt system with 5 kWH motors equipped with four-speed manual transmission and becomes a common sight on Norwegian streets.
The Hotzenblitz: Not Gone or Forgotten
A group of engineers in Hotzenwald, Germany, get together in 1988 and decide the time has come to create fuel efficient, environmentally friendly cars. By 1990, they present the Hotzenblitz — an egg-shaped, semi-convertible electric car — to the press and with a 1991 infusion of cash from Alfred Theodore Ritter, production is able to begin in 1993. This handmade car makes a huge splash at the media event and pre-production models are being sold to some early customers. It soon becomes clear, however, that the business and development model for the little car that sells for anywhere from $39,000 to $62,000 isn’t sustainable. Sales are projected at 20,000 units per year, but after 2 years only 150 models are built and the company goes into bankruptcy in 1996. The Hotzenblitz — also known as The Electric Sport — fades off into oblivion like so many electric cars... until... hackers get their hands on some of the 150 production models starting in 2005 and get to work bringing them up to date. The German Aerospace Center installs a hydrogen fuel-cell in one of the vehicles, calling it the Hotzenblitz Hylite, and a Swiss engineering team presents a tricked out Hotzenblitz that can travel 350 km (217.5 mi) on a single charge.
The U.S. and California Reward for Qualified Low-Emissions Vehicles
Both Federal and California governments commit to rewarding taxpayers who either purchase new low-emission motor vehicles or retrofit existing cars to operate on low-emissions fuel. Based on the existing California tax Law Sec. 17052.11 and 23603, and the New Federal Law IRC Sec. 30, the potential credits range from $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the car. The incentive is created as the continued drawbacks from electric vehicles compared to their gas-powered counterparts are once again causing the public to lose interest in them.
Mercedes S-Class from Munich Automatic Driving Style
Ernst Dickmanns leads a team to create and pilot a re-engineered autonomous Mercedes S-Class throughout Europe as part of the PROMETHEUS initiative, not once, but twice. The first trip is in 1994 through Paris on Autoroute 1. Twin self-driving vehicles from Daimler-Benz (VITA-2) and UniBwM (VaMP) ferry passengers over more than 1000 km (621.4 miles) on a heavily trafficked three-lane highway at speeds reaching 130 km/h (80.8 mph). The second is on the Autobahn from Munich, Germany, to Odense, Denmark, covering 1758 km (1092.4 miles) at speeds up to 175 km/h (108.7 mph). Although human drivers are available to course correct and step in, 95 percent of the journeys are done autonomously.
As U.S. Electric Car Interest Wanes, Europe and Asia’s Rises
As American car companies figure out ways to comply with California’s more stringent vehicle emissions laws - an immensely valuable market for all automakers - they find themselves faced with a public that values their gas vehicles and are generally uninterested in the slower, more expensive, and less powerful zero emissions options being investigated. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia continue to actively pursue development of the electric microcar to address the needs of their more congested and smaller city streets, and overrun urban areas.
Carnegie Mellon Expands the Autonomous Reach
Don Pomerleau and his CMU team present NavLab 5, setting out from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Los Angeles, California, on a trip billed as “No Hands Across America.” The computerized and vision - enabled 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport Van runs across over 3000 miles (4828 km) of roads 98 percent autonomously. It is the first time a self-driving vehicle successfully travels through such diverse terrain. Per NavLab pioneer, Chuck Thorpe, “It’s not just a matter of purple mountains majesties - it’s a matter of painted lines on asphalt vs. reddish concrete vs. ‘Bott’s dots’ reflective markers in California, all of which make a big difference in how the road looks to a robot.”
India forms REVA Electric Car Company (RECC)
Focusing on addressing the needs of a congested urban city, Reva Electric Car Company is founded as a joint venture between the Maini Group of Bangalore, India, and Amerigon Electric Vehicle Technologies in California, U.S.A. The new enterprise — based in India — begins development on an electric car that is both compact and affordable for any and everyone who wants it.
Toyota Innovates Close to Home
Nearly 100 years after Ferdinand Porsche created the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, Toyota becomes the first automaker to mass - produce it for the public. Called Prius—Latin for “to go before” — this new hybrid is exclusive to the Japanese market as Toyota waits to see if it will succeed as the company believes.
GM’s EV1 Breaks Records
The electric concept car General Motors presents at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, Impact, becomes the cornerstone of the PrEView program. With PrEView, GM begins researching the viability of zero emissions cars and hand builds 50 models to give to drivers to test out over the course of a couple of weeks. The drivers’ experiences are chronicled and the information gathered is used to create a production ready version of the Impact, now known as the EV1. As part of the research, a modified version of the experimental GM electric vehicle sets the new land speed record for a production electric car at 183 mph (295 km/h).
Double Duty Compact
Suzuki presents an electric concept vehicle that touts the most advanced in-car multimedia equipment to date. Known as the CT-1, the battery-powered compact is a city transport that has the loading capacity of a truck and utility van. Its side doors electronically lower to allow passengers to easily enter or can be adjusted to accommodate taller than cab cargo. Introduced at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show, the goal is to put the car into production, but it never makes it to the streets.
EV1: Ahead of (Then Out of) Its Time
The 1994 holder of the electric vehicle land speed record begins commercial production of 660 EV1s that are offered for lease, not sale. Powered by GM lead-acid batteries with an advertised range of between 70–100 miles (112.7-160.9 km), the limited edition and ”for lease/not sale” fully-electric car is a technological achievement and passionate favorite among its lessees. By 1999, the number of vehicles leased is 1,117, some with the newer, more efficient Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack. In 2003, all leases are called in, the model-line discontinued and other than approximately 20 donated to various museums and institutions, every EV1 is destroyed.
Ford: Green with Competition
Not to be outdone by GM, Ford releases the Ranger EV, an electric spin on the automaker’s popular light duty truck. 1,400 are produced from 1998 until 2002 with a maximum range of 65 miles (104.61 km/h) and the ability to go 0-60 in 10 seconds. Like GM, these are available on a lease program only. While most are for fleets, Ford also offers them to the public at the low cost of $155 per month for 3 years — the purchase price is $52,720. Though many Rangers are destroyed at lease end, lessees are given the option to purchase their vehicle. While Ford has no plans to produce more, Elbil Import in Norway purchases some of the remaining models in 2008, and limited numbers of Ranger EVs live on in both the U.S. and Scandinavia.
Electric Pickup Truck
GM releases the Chevrolet S-10 EV, an electric pickup truck available for both lease and sale—of the 492 trucks built 60 are sold mostly to utility companies. It travels at a top speed of 73 mph (118 km/h) and a top range of 90 miles (144 kilometers).
Electric Continues to Build Steam
With Honda, GM and Volkswagen discontinuing their battery-powered vehicles, and Ford, Nissan and Toyota dipping their toes in — then pulling out soon after — it looks as if the plug-in car will, once again, fade into the distance. Behind the scenes, however, scientists and engineers are working to improve electric vehicles and their batteries to make them viable for the upcoming millenia.