The pioneering years (nineteenth century)
The first known electric carriage (car) was built in 1837 by Scotsman Robert Davidson and was powered by zinc-acid batteries. He later went on to develop an electric locomotive which was tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow train line. However, it was quickly established that such battery powered vehicles were not as economically viable as steam powered vehicles since the batteries were not rechargeable.
In 1859 Frenchmen Gaston Planté developed lead-acid batteries which could be recharged. By 1881 another Frenchman, Camille Fauré, had significantly improved these batteries and so the electric car became a viable proposition.
The first production electric car was developed in 1884 by Englishman Thomas Parker, who was also responsible for electric power on the London Underground, and electric trams in Liverpool and Birmingham. A man clearly ahead of his time, he seemed interested in electric vehicles for their green non-polluting credentials and was also the inventor of the smokeless fuel, coalite, in 1904!
Austrian car manufacturer Lohner produced the very first hybrid electric vehicle in 1898 after teaming up with Ferdinand Porsche. The Lohner-Porsche was the world’s first petrol-electric hybrid car. It was also revolutionary by having ‘Radnaben’ electric motors in the front wheel hubs. Coach builder E.W. Hart of Luton in England ordered several Lohner-Porsche vehicles including a special 4 wheel drive version with 4 electric hubs. This was the world’s first four wheel drive vehicle.
On 29th April 1899 a Belgian, Camille Jenatzy, set the world land speed record (105.88 km/h 65.79 mph) in the electric car ‘La Jamais Contente’. This was the first car ever to exceed 100km/h.
Between 6th & 9th November 1900, the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland sponsored an electric car endurance trial. The 4 wheel drive Lohner-Porsche was among the entrants but it was won by a Louis-Kreiger car named ‘Powerful’. It achieved an impressive 59 miles at an average speed of 10mph.
Electric taxis became available in 1897 and were nicknamed “Hummingbirds’ because of the noise they made and were commonplace in New York at the end of the century. According to Wikipedia, at the turn of the century, 40 percent of American cars were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. At that time 33,842 electric cars were registered in America – the country where electric cars had gained the greatest acceptance at that time.