The milk float years (twentieth century)
After a strong start for the electric car in the 19th century their attraction declined significantly and the internal combustion engine (ICE) would become dominant. The major reason for this shift was the limited range of the electric vehicles (about 30 miles) and the lack of charging infra-structure (not everyone had electricity in the early part of the 20th century). To overcome this Hartford Electric in the USA introduced a battery exchange scheme where the owner paid a per-mile charge and a service fee. The service was in operation between 1910 to 1924.
At this time the internal combustion engine (ICE) had a number of disadvantages compared to electric cars such as: having to crank start the engine, they were quite dirty and of course noisy compared to their electric counterparts. So perhaps it is not surprising that electric cars were especially popular with women. However ICE based cars did improve and were lighter, faster and ultimately cheaper than electric vehicles. Additionally the cost of petrol was not prohibitive for most of the twentieth century and so the popularity of electric cars diminished significantly.
Electric cars saw a brief revival in the 1940s since the Second World War had led to a scarcity of petrol and so electric vehicles became briefly viable. There were reportedly 14 companies in Europe producing electric cars during World War 2. Eight in France, two in Holland, two in Spain and another two in Great Britain. As petrol became plentiful the attraction of these electric cars quickly diminished.
In the 1960s city traffic congestion was a growing problem and the concept of compact urban vehicles emerged. These small vehicles for short journeys prompted another short revival of interest with the production of electric cars such as the Ford Comuta and the Scamp in the USA. These were much less practical than conventional vehicles since they were limited to short journeys and there was no charging infrastructure, and so sales were low. The fuel crisis in 1973 again led to a renewed interest in electric cars but this was short lived and did not lead to a real revival.
Amazingly in 1980 there were more electric vehicles in the UK than in the rest of the world! But, they were not cars, they were electric milk floats – around 60,000 of them. However, the shift away from the morning milk deliveries in the UK managed to kill off this cottage industry.
British inventor Clive Sinclair brought us the C5 in 1985 after much hype about a whole range of electric cars. Predictably the small three wheeler was not a success and did nothing for the credibility of electric cars. Sinclair Vehicles went bust with most C5s unsold and the plan for larger vehicles died with the company.
A number of concept and prototype cars were produced in the 80s and 90s including GMs experimental electric sports car called the Impact. There continued to be minor improvements in battery technology and the big three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) announced plans in 1991 to co-operate on battery development. There was also interest in solar powered or assisted vehicles during this time.
A new car manufacturer got serious about electric city cars for volume production, Norwegian company Pivco (Personal Independent Vehicle Company) was founded in 1991 and produced a number of “PIV” prototypes and variants for pilots and trials before the PIV4, which was partly engineered by Lotus, became branded as the Th!nk and was prepared for production. Unfortunately the company was out of cash and a majority share was sold to Ford allowing production to begin eventually in 1999.
Global climate concerns brought about a focus on the use of fossil fuels in the 1990s and so electric hybrid vehicles began to generate interest with prototypes from Audi and Volkswagen. However, it was the Toyota Prius which in 1997 became the first mass production petrol-electric car. So the hybrid car had in fact taken 99 years from invention to mass production. Another Japanese manufacturer, Nissan, was developing full electric cars and in 1997 released the Prairie Joy (the first electric car with lithium ion batteries) and the Altra 1998. Although Nissan’s early electric cars were not commercial successes they were a sign of things to come.