The decade from 1900 to 1910 represented the Golden Age of electric cars. In the first year of the new century, nearly 40 per cent of the electric cars sold in the United States, the world’s largest market, were electric. Gasoline-powered cars accounted for just 22 per cent.
Although development of the internal combustion engine was progressing swiftly, and manufacturers like Jenatzy and Jeantaud were well aware of the threat they posed, the electric cars still held the upper hand, particularly in ease-of-use and refinement. The majority of car journeys took place in built-up areas, so early drivers had no range anxiety worries.
Electric cars had already seen off the challenge of steam-power, which required drivers to keep a close eye on the pressure gauge and needed regular top-ups to keep going.
The limited range of electric cars would only become an issue when smooth roads were built to link towns together – making longer trips not only viable, but also desirable. In 1900, routes outside urban areas were generally in poor condition and unsuitable for early automobiles of whatever persuasion.
Electric cars were also easier to drive. Manual transmissions of the era were sticky and difficult to master because they used straight-cut gears and had heavy clutches. Electric cars offered a largely fuss-free solution for pioneering motorists because they had no need of complex transmissions. They were relatively advanced, reliable and well-liked.
‘The electric automobile is managed easily, is docile, has a noiseless motion and the motor itself is mounted in a very simple manner,’ wrote The Automobile in 1905. ‘Over petrol cars it has the advantages of easier starting, greater cleanliness and, perhaps, lower cost of upkeep. There is but little vibration with the electric cars, no bad odour, and no consumption of energy whilst the car is stopped.’
Drawbacks? ‘The inconveniences of electricity as automobile motive power are increase in dead weight carried, maintenance and renewal of accumulators. These… are lessened greatly in electric cars for town work.’
Dozens of manufacturers sprang up to satisfy the demand for electric cars. Some, such as Oppermann, of London, Steinmetz of Baltimore, and the unlikely sounding Swiss company Triblehorn, only produced a small number of vehicles before they went bust, were taken over or gave up. Others, such as Columbia, Baker, Waverley, Studebaker, Rauch and Lang and Milburn, were among the largest motor manufacturers of the day. A few, like Lohner and Pieper, pioneered technology that would be refined by Toyota for the Prius hybrid nearly a century later.
All of these car manufacturers had two things in common: they were sure that electrical cars power was the future and that a breakthrough in battery technology was ‘just around the corner’.
In Britain, Queen Alexandra took delivery of her first car in May 1901, from the City and Suburban Electric Carriage Company of Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus, in London. Edward VII’s wife had the ‘Electric Votiurette’ shipped to Norfolk where she used it as her personal transportation in the grounds of the royal Sandringham estate.
The Queen’s two-seater was luxuriously appointed. It was upholstered in dark green leather with a folding hood of polished grain hide lined with a dark green cloth. The black bodywork was highlighted with red pinstripes and the dashboard was also trimmed with patent leather. It rode on bicycle pattern wire-spoked wheels with 3-inch pneumatic tyres and weighed, together with the batteries, 12cwt (612kg). According to Autocar, Her Majesty’s car had a top speed of 12mph (19km/h) and a range of 40 miles (64km). Although the price isn’t known, The Star newspaper stated on 27 September 1901, that: ‘From a perusal of the builders’ catalogue, such a vehicle could not be duplicated under a cost of £400’.
City and Suburban manufactured vehicles under license from an American company – the Electric Carriage Company, of Hartford, in Connecticut – one of several that had made up the empire of Colonel Albert Augustus Pope. Although based on the popular Columbia design, in the UK they were mainly fitted with British-built bodies.
City and Suburban were popular with the upper-classes in London but the best-known British marque at the turn of the century was Electromobile, in Lambeth. Rather like City and Suburban, Electric cars licensed a foreign design – in this case a French front-wheel drive vehicle manufactured by Krieger – before refining the concept for British customers. The London-based company ditched front-wheel drive in favour of a motor in each rear wheel. This complex system was simplified for 1903 with a single motor mounted on the rear axle.
Limited sales led Electromobile to pursue a contract-hire scheme – although at an annual cost of £325 for a brougham (including batteries and maintenance) it was still beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy. Eventually the company gave up and moved into the London electric taxi business that had been recently vacated by Bersey. Its cabs continued to run well into the 1920s, long after demand for electric cars in Britain had dried up.
It was a very different story in America, where electric cars kept pace with the internal combustion competition until Ford’s game-changing Model T arrived. Why was this? The greater urbanization of American cities made getting about in electric carsfar easier and the electric car industry made a more determined effort to create a viable charging infrastructure. Electricity was widely available and recharging a battery overnight was a minor inconvenience compared to hand-cranking a cold internal combustion engine into life first thing on a morning.
As the world’s largest manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages and harnesses, it was inevitable that Studebaker should take an interest in automobiles. The company built its first ‘horseless vehicle’ in the spring of 1897, when Frederick Fish, chairman of the executive committee, persuaded the company to put up $4,000 in development funds. By 1899, Studebaker was building bodies for third parties on a contractual basis. An early customer was the bicycle baron, Colonel Albert Augustus Pope, whose Columbia brand was one of the biggest names in electric cars. Three years later, Studebaker launched its own range of electric cars and trucks. The first electric carriage was sold to a Mr F. W. Blees, of Macon, on 12 February 1902. Its second customer was Thomas Edison. The electric cars, which were based on the company’s earlier carriage designs, were manufactured at a factory in South Bend, Indiana.
In Chicago, entrepreneur Clinton E. Woods founded the Woods Motor Vehicle Company in 1898, although its early attempts at building a carriage-style electric were flawed, to say the least. In 1900, it unveiled the curiously-named Spider, a horseless hansom carriage powered by a small electric cars motor mounted ahead of the rear wheels. The power was transmitted through a chain drive with differential pulleys.
Steering was via the front wheels and the driver nominally controlled the Spider via a curved tiller, which connected to the front wheels via two long rods running beneath the bench seat. As with so many horseless carriage designs of the period, the Spider’s steering control was rudimentary at best. As the driver sat above and behind the passengers, the steering rods were both too long and too flexible. What worked well with a horse, didn’t work with an electric motor set-up.
Several manufacturers noted this problem and moved the driver closer to the steering wheels. Later designs added gearing and extra linkages to better translate the driver’s hand movement into steering effort.
Manufacturers of electric cars were already well aware of the drawbacks imposed by storage batteries of electric cars and work was going on both sides of the Atlantic to find a way of solving the biggest problem of them all: how to extend the range-to-empty.
At the World Exhibition in Paris, in 1900, k.u.k. Hofwagenfabrik Ludwig Lohner & Co. unveiled the Lohner–Porsche. The car, called the Toujours-Contente, was the work of Lohner’s chief designer, a young man called Ferdinand Porsche. As a fresh-faced 18-year-old, Porsche had caught a train from North Bohemia for Vienna, where he landed his first job working for the Bela Egger Electrical company. Although he had no formal education in engineering, Porsche showed a flair for design that caught the eye of his new employer. He had developed an almost friction-free drivetrain by mounting electric motors in the front wheel hubs. By using the rotation of the wheel as the rotor of a DC motor, Porsche was able to do away with gears and drive shafts.
His novel approach resulted in a motor that was 83 per cent efficient – perfect for an automotive application where batteries were still struggling to keep up with the ambitions of electric cars designers. Within four years Porsche was promoted to head of the company’s test department, where his flair brought him to the attention of Jacob Lohner, a coach-builder with ambitions to become a car manufacturer.
The Lohner–Porsche was a revelation for the time. Its motors were housed in the wooden-spoke front wheels – one of the reasons why they each weighed a hefty 253lb (115kg). Each one was good for 2.5bhp at a mere 120rpm – enough to accelerate the first Lohner–Porsche to its 23mph (37km/h) top speed.
Lohner company built around 300 all-electric Lohner–Porsche cars. Depending on the options, a wealthy owner specified they cost between 10,000 and 35,000 Austrian crowns. Lohner marketed it as a prestige vehicle only available to rich clients. Owners included the wealthy banker Baron Nathan Rothschild, early cinema pioneer Ludwig Stollwerck, Prince Egon von Furstenberg and the Viennese coffee magnet Julius Meinl.
If the Mixte was a sales flop at least Lohner saw a modest return on the full electric cars. Approximately sixty-five Lohner–Porsche electric cars were sold during the first 5 years of series production to the end of 1905.
Porsche himself had the last laugh: 60 years later his hub motor design would be revisited by NASA scientists and the concept was used in the lunar rover.
More interesting was the Auto-Mixte, which was made in Belgium from 1906 and used a 24bhp combustion engine, which drove a dynamo via a magnetic disc clutch that was connected to a transmission, which drove the rear wheels via a chain. Regenerative braking helped charge twenty-eight batteries in series, which, under heavy load, could be switched to assist the engine. Electric cars could operate on electric power alone – a mode selected via a hand controller that operated a series of mechanical switches and relays. The dynamo could also be spun backward, acting as a crude electric reverse gear.
This innovative system was licensed from inventor and gunmaker Henri Pieper who had taken the hybrid concept to a new level.
Electric cars are becoming more and more popular in the world and some people can’t understand how they have lived without them so long time. Electric cars are a very attractive alternative for those drivers who want to do less harm to the environment, and reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, and who wants to get rid of the constant search for gas stations in cases where the gasoline level reaches a minimum.
A History of Electric Cars by Nigel Burton