Time Travel Electric Cars

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Did you know there were electric cars in the late 1800s-1920s?

Automotive Heritage: Electric Cars
Historic Period: 1890s-1920s

If you hopped on the nearest time machine, and travelled back to 1892, would you expect to find an electric car?

I certainly didn’t. But, during my pre-writing research, (and on our all-things-cars-related bookshelf), I discovered a book published in 2002 – The Great American Automobiles.


The 1890s-1900s – Electric Cars in Cities

‘The Great American Automobiles’ includes a timeline of automobile history in America. To my surprise, electric cars were already present in the late 1800s. They could be found on the roads from the 1890s, and throughout the early 1900s. Mostly used in cities, they later became popular as taxis, before their decline in 1919 as petrol engines began to dominate the market. 

That’s over 20 years of electric, before they gave way to petrol-powered cars!


Electric Vs Gasoline

Several reasons were responsible for the decline of electric cars. In 1919, this was due to “the rise of the gasoline engine and the wider availability of the self-starter,” referencing the necessity for more reliable cars during that era and the increased accessibility of such technology. Ford won hands down in this area. They focused on higher production of petrol-powered cars, making cars accessible, not only to the wealthy, but to anyone who wanted to travel.  

For Anyone Who Dreamed to Travel

In the early 1900s, the automobile had been turned into something attainable, accessible to everyone who dreamed to drive. 

The most successful cars in this time were also the most accessible ones. It was the ability to reach our favourite people and places, in less time and with increased convenience. Simply put, the car saved time and connected people, places, and everything in between.

It still does.

Of course, today’s automobile easily accomplishes the necessity of convenience, speed and attainability. Often, most of these outstanding achievements are taken for granted. But, without reliable cars, the people, places and experiences we have grown to so easily access, may not have been as easy to reach. 


Go Anywhere, Anytime

Cars started to represent a sort of, freedom to travel, and an ability to experience the unknown. Higher production in the 1900s was focused simply on accessibility, to go from A to B. However, cars were becoming much more than that. Fast forward to the 50s, through to the 80s, and 90s, the car became a part of our personal identity. Arguably, one of the most important factors that drive many luxury (and classic) cars today is how they make the owner look, and feel. The styling, badge, heritage and image (what this car represents) – in short, the overall driving experience matters. But, it’s even more than that. There is something special about owning a car – a sense of pride, achievement, and maybe even the very human feeling of curiosity – being able to explore – independently and make memories with those we hold close.

Going anywhere we choose, at anytime. 


Petrol to Electric?

The usefulness and original passion behind the automobile, still exists today. We continue to value the convenience and the opportunity to explore the unknown, coupled with a sense of independence to simply go anywhere we choose. And of course, we want to see the people and places that we love. The car is therefore, still just as important today as it was at the start of the 20th century. The only difference is the need for more sustainable power.

Electric, sustainable fuel, hydrogen and other options are being explored to find a way forward. It’s important to remember that cars are not the enemy. However, a change of fuel/power is predicted to make a considerable difference to the planet. A necessary change so that we can continue to cherish this incredible invention that has transformed our lives, for the better.



Why Electric Cars Lost Out The First Time

During the late 1800s-1920s, electric cars typically had a range of 50 miles, with one manufacturer achieving a maximum of 200 miles between trips (as demonstrated in promotional campaigns from this period). Top speed was 20mph. Batteries had to be replaced every 3 years and they were significantly more expensive than petrol-powered alternatives. For instance, a Rauch and Lang electric car was priced at $3500, while the Ford Model T 2-door sedan was available at $760. That’s a huge difference.

The success of electric cars was impacted by a combination of limited range, high purchase costs, high battery replacement costs (longevity) and accessibility (the ability to purchase, recharge and maintain, and the physical production).

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the very first electric cars. I wonder how many of these lessons are being applied today. 

Will improvements in the range, cost, and accessibility eventually change the destiny of the electric car in the 2020s?

I guess, we will find out!



The Great Book of American Automobiles, Andrew Montgomery, 2002. 

Exploration: Where the wheels turn assuringly onto roads that sweep far into the distance, and the journey uncovers wonders unknown. 

Cars of the 1900s

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