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A Short History of Electric Vehicles

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Tags: Heritage, Emobility, ZeroEmissions
Electromobility's roots reach back into the late 19th century. Part 1 of our outline of the history of electric vehicles describes the development from the beginnings up to the 1940s
Volker Christian Manz, October 10, 2018
Volker Christian Manz is a freelance motor journalist who writes about e-mobility. He has been collecting all about it since more than 30 years. His four-part book series about the long history of electric vehicles will be published in Spain.
In the early days of individual motorized mobility, equal opportunities prevailed for all the pioneers. Whether they leaned towards steam drives or powered their vehicles with gas, electricity or gasoline – it quickly became clear that the automobile's triumphant advance could not be stopped. (The word "automobile" is derived from the Ancient Greek for "self-moving".) Few people know that electromobility has its roots in the late 19th century. In Paris in 1881, the Frenchman Gustave Trouvé presented the world's first officially recognized electric vehicle: the Trouvé tricyle. At this point, it still was still equipped with pedals. A few weeks later, the English engineers William Edward Ayrton and John Perry built an electric tricycle without this auxiliary drive.

The first approach: The beginnings of electromobility in the 19th century

Contemporary drawing of the first electric vehicle in the world from 1881, built by the French inventor Gustave Trouvé © Manz Archive

It wasn't until 1893, however, that the Frenchman Charles Jeantaud founded the first automotive company, which for years only built electric vehicles under the brand name "Jeantaud". The French racing driver Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first confirmed speed record in a Jeantaud. He later increased this to 92 km/h in 1899. However, it was his rival, the Belgian Camille Jenatzy, who broke the magical 100 km/h limit, also in 1899. The torpedo-shaped electric car "La Jamais Contente", which he constructed himself, achieved just under 106 km/h! Land speed records were soon followed by long-distance records: Whilst in 1899 a Jeantaud had a reach of 140 kilometers without charging, one year later this lay at 262 kilometers, until in 1901, an electric car by the "Compagnie Parisienne des Voitures Électriques Système Kriéger" managed a distance of 307 kilometers on one charge.

At the end of the 19th century, US manufacturer Morris & Salom modernized New York's taxi fleet with their quiet and odorless Electrobat. In Austria, Ferdinand Porsche revolutionized the production of Lohner electric vehicles with his wheel-hub motor. This allowed as many electric motors to be installed as the vehicle had wheels. Thus, the first all-wheel drive was created, without ratio and transmission. Around the turn of the century, several companies began offering exclusively electric passenger cars, delivery vehicles and trucks as well as buses. Even back then, the French Post and Telegraph Services were good customers of electric vehicles, as was the Reichspost in Germany. Likewise, American publishers had their newspapers thrown into front gardens from electric delivery vehicles.
Lohner-Porsche with electric wheel-hub drive © Porsche

Another American, lawyer George Baldwin Selden, attempted to create a monopoly for automotive manufacturing by means of the Selden patent. His objective was that every manufacturer of gasoline-powered vehicles should pay him license fees. As early as 1879 he had patented the motorcar as a general concept. This was based on the Brayton engine, which was not widely known. In 1899, the Electric Vehicle Company joined this lucrative business to monopolize the taxi sector with battery-powered vehicles. It was Henry Ford who finally defeated Selden's concept in 1911.

Not much later, Ford got together with his friend Thomas Edison to offer an affordable electric vehicle for the masses. They created two prototypes of the Edison-Ford, as the vehicle was called. However, part of the factory was destroyed by a fire – cause unknown. Speculations quickly arose that pointed to the oil cartels as the culprits.

In America at the turn of the century, electric vehicles were popular for many years. In 1912, for example, around 35,000 vehicles were registered. The manufacturers all invested a lot of money in media campaigns. Frequently, brochures and advertising motifs were supposed to show women behind the steering wheels, to demonstrate how easy it was to use the electric vehicles. At the same time, batteries became lighter and lasted longer. Apart from lead-acid batteries, manufacturers of electric vehicles also used Edison's nickel-iron battery. In 1908, the engineers at the Siemens-Schuckert electrical engineering company believed they had already overcome all difficulties regarding power supply. Ranges between 60 and 80 kilometers at a speed of 30 km/h were viewed as quite attractive.
1906 Siemens-Schuckert taxi during battery change: Take out the empty battery, put the charged battery back in, and you're done © Siemens

The second approach: The Roaring Twenties

The twenties were primarily characterized by the offer of electric commercial vehicles. Selling whole fleets was a good business model: Food and drink suppliers were among the customers, as were laundries and newspaper publishers. In Germany, commercial vehicle suppliers such as AEG, Bergmann, Bleichert, Hansa-Lloyd, Siemens-Schuckert or the Maschinenfabrik Esslingen delivered various types of light commercial vehicles with payloads up to five tons. However, customers could also purchase the other electric vehicle extreme: electric microcars. These were offered by S&B and Hawa in Germany and by Automatic in North America. Whilst small electric vehicles could be charged easily at any regular domestic socket, the larger vehicles got their power at special charging stations.

In France, electromobility lost its significance, as battery manufacturers refused to carry out maintenance on their products. Incorrect charging and poor maintenance shortened battery service life. Germany handled this differently. Here, electric taxis and official vehicles were offered a professional network of charging stations. During this period, there were also tests with large, elegant passenger cars. Examples are the French AAA, the English Wilson and the Cabriolet by German company Bleichert.
Battery change for an electric American Railway Services truck © Manz Archive

The third approach: The dark era of World War II

After the German occupation of France during World War II, gasoline was strictly rationed. For this reason, numerous French companies once again turned to the electric drive. This resulted in a diverse range of models, from microcars up to eight-ton trucks. Peugeot developed its first electric city car, the VLV one-seater (VLV stands for Voiture Légère de Ville - light city car). Due to fuel shortages, several countries converted existing vehicles with gasoline engines to electric ones. In Italy, Lancia and Maserati even built electric commercial vehicles.

Coming up: part 2 of our outline of the history of electric vehicles.

Coming up: part 2 of our outline of the history of electric vehicles.