How early EVs were overtaken by macho petrol heads

The first electric vehicles were cheaper, simpler, more reliable and cleaner than their petrol-powered rivals. Electricity should have been the winner in the early twentieth century. What happened?

1908 advert for the Baker electric car.
1908 advert for the Baker electric car. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The first Porsche electric car was the C2 Phaeton. Built in 1898 it had a maximum speed of 9 mph and a range of 50 miles. The second electric Porsche was the Taycan in 2020. It had a maximum speed of 143 mph and a range of about 200 miles. Purists will say the C2 wasn’t a Porsche. But the designer, Ferdinand Porsche, stamped P1 on all the primary components and, ever since, it has been known as Porsche number one.

The gap between the C2 – a sort of four-seater horse buggy without the horse – and the Taycan – a sleek supercar – tells the story of the electric car. It burned brightly in the 1890s. Electricity was one of the three leading contenders for the privilege of powering the coming age of the car – the other two were steam and, of course, internal combustion.

The contest was taking place primarily in America which, having lagged seriously behind Germany and France, was, by the nineties, in a Gold Rush like frenzy to grasp the automotive future. But, even as late as 1900, petrol was trailing in the power race. It powered only 20 per cent of the 5000 cars in the US.

‘Only in retrospect,’ writes David Nye in his book America’s Assembly Line, ‘does the victor in this contest seem obvious.’

Steam had got off to a good start. In 1712 it launched the Industrial Revolution when Thomas Newcomen developed a steam-powered pump to clear tin and coal mines of water. But it was seriously problematic when applied to cars. In France in 1770 Nicholas-Jospeh Cugnot built his fardier à vapeur – steam wagon – which managed 2.5mph but had to stop every fifteen minutes to build up power. It was also unstable and became the first automobile to crash when it collided with a stone wall.

Steam joined the automotive rush in the 1880s at the same time as electricity. It had excellent prospects. Steam cars could be very fast. In 1906 the Stanley Steamer hit 127.7 mph on Ormond Beach in Florida, a record not broken by any other steam car until 2009 when the British built steamer Inspiration hit 151 mph at Edwards Airforce Base in California.

Electricity, meanwhile, was matching steam, if not in speed, at least in convenience. In 1888 Walter Bersey, the Elon Musk of his day, developed a new form of battery that powered an electric bus. He went on to create an electric taxi service in London. In 1899 a fabulously named, rocket shaped electric car – La Jamais Contente – driven by the Belgian Camille Jenatzy, known as Le Diable Rouge, became the first road vehicle to exceed 100 kilometres per hour.

Electricity could also claim the first automotive death. In 1899 Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old realtor stepped out of a trolley car at West 74th Street and Central Park West in New York City and was hit by an electric-powered taxi. He died in hospital the next morning.  A plaque placed at the site in 1999 calls Henry’s death ‘the first recorded motor vehicle fatality in the Western Hemisphere’. This was not true. Penge Common in London lies fractionally to the West of the Prime Meridian and it was there that Bridget Driscoll died, having been hit by a car in 1896. The New York plaque has since been changed.

But, by 1910, America had won the race to become the world’s automotive superpower and internal combustion had seized the future. The shortcomings of steam were pretty obvious but what was wrong with electricity?

On the face of it, electricity should have been the winner. The early electric vehicles (EVs) were cheaper, simpler, more reliable and cleaner than their petrol-powered rivals.  They didn’t need gear changes and they didn’t need to be started with a crank handle.

As one EV ad cooed, ‘No machinery to get out of order, no mechanician needed, no engine trouble, no nerve wracking gear clashing, no exhaust noise to disconcert the timid, nothing but just the enjoyment of rapid transit in an easy, luxurious, delightful manner…’

But sexism manged to turn all these virtues into vices. These were range-restricted, urban cars and, as historian Virginia Scharff has observed, ‘The distinguishing characteristic of feminity is staying in your place.’ Only men could be expected to handle the real thing. EVs were being bought for daughters and wives. EV dealerships were decorated like cosy sitting rooms.

Even Henry Ford gave his wife, Clara, an EV built by Detroit Electric. Amazingly this was in 1908, the year Ford launched the Model T, arguably the greatest car ever built and the one that sealed the deal for the internal combustion machine.

Autmotive sexism, incidentally, was resurrected on the mean streets of the fifties when, at General Motors, Harley Earl, designer of extravagant finned monsters, launched Damsel in Design. These designers just put fancy seat covers, toy storage, cosmetic boxes and huge mirrors in the finned monsters. In 1955 GM also brought out the Dodge La Femme, ‘the first and only car designed for Your Majesty … the American Woman.’ It didn’t sell, it didn’t deserve to.

Perhaps it was all a big mistake, perhaps we have been driven down the wrong road by the macho petrol heads. As we try to move into the all-electric age and oil is now evil, perhaps we should have stuck with EVs.

Certainly we seem to have trouble making the transition back to electricity. Our EVs do not look like electric cars, they just look like cars; indeed many of them are just existing cars converted to electricity. But even Teslas continue to look like cars with a big bonnet in front. This is not needed, electric engines are relatively small and the batteries are usually flat on the chassis.

Perhaps the first EVs should inspire us. They look, admittedly, funny. Lacking only a vestigial front end to contain the batteries, they look like little rooms on wheels with the driver as just another passenger. Or more radically, with the driver on a raised seat at the rear, surveying the road from the heights of the car roof. One German limo has the chauffeur sitting on top with the two passengers on magnificent deep-buttoned seats and utterly exposed to the elements at, more or less, street level at the front. Only the chauffeur would survive a front end collision.

Chargers, meanwhile, began to look weird. One looks like a robot from Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis. Unfortunately it was hand-cranked. The company – Pope Manufacturing – tried to advertise this inconvenience away by showing a woman happily cranking to charge her Columbia Mark 68 Victoria.

But one man defied the cars are for girls culture. Posing in the rather crotchy manner later popularised by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, the great inventor, had himself pictured with his Edison Baker electric car and the small bonnet defiantly open – no engine is revealed, just a great block of batteries. Nothing ladylike there.

My point about this first whimsical electric era is not that car makers should go back there, rather that they should imagine more radically. Electricity frees us from the saloon’s three-box shape or the appalling two-box SUVs. Is there a law against the elevated rear-end driver? There certainly isn’t one against the one-box van-like shape of the Dormobile or the new electric Volkswagen ID.Buzz, a resurrection of the glorious VW Microbus which was once more or less de rigeur for sleeping at rock festivals.

Of course, we may not get there at all. Electrification of cars is going to run into the brick wall of our dismal lack of reliable charging stations unless somebody spends unfeasible amounts of money and we don’t have much of that do we? There is always hydrogen, but that’s another story.


Bryan Appleyard