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.
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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
The first approach: The beginnings of electromobility in the 19th century
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.
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.
Replica of the electric tricycle by the English professors William Edward Ayrton and John Perry from 1882 © Ignacio Saenz de Camara
The torpedo-shaped "Jamais Contente" by Belgian Camille Jenatzky during his world record attempt, which peaked at just under 106 km/h in 1899 © XX Archive
Lohner-Porsche with electric wheel-hub drive © Porsche
1906 Siemens-Schuckert taxi during battery change: Take out the empty battery, put the charged battery back in, and you're done © Siemens
Around 1902, US car manufacturer Studebaker used lady drivers to advertise how simple it was to operate its electric vehicles © Manz Archive
The Torino, an electric truck from Italy, 1909 © Manz Archive
Lohner-Porsche double-decker bus for Berlin, 1907 © Porsche
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.
A Hungarian Raba Magyar from the 1940s © Manz Archive
The American "Automatic" from 1921 served as both a microcar and a delivery truck © Manz Archive
UPS put electric vehicles to use in inner-city deliveries from an early stage. Shown here: a Walker from 1935 UPS ©
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.
As fuel had been rationed, Peugeot developed its first electric city car in 1941, the VLV one-seater © Peugeot
Spanish automobile manufacturer David built large vehicles with electric motors, generally on used chassis. During World War II, Spain was cut off from crude oil deliveries © Manz Archive