1901 Waverley Electric Road Wagon
1901 Waverley Electric Road Wagon. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Self-contained electric vehicles (powered by on-board batteries, not overhead wires) ran as early as the 1830s. Thomas Davenport, a Brandon, Vermont blacksmith, built and operated a small electric vehicle in about 1834. In 1839 Scotsman Robert Davidson built an electric locomotive and operated it successfully, before it was destroyed by Luddite steam locomotive engineers.

The emergence of the automobile at the turn of the century saw three power sources vying for supremacy: the external combustion steam engine; the battery powered electric motor; and the internal combustion gasoline engine. Steam, with the longest history, held some 40 percent of the U.S. car market in 1900.

Electricity, however, had a very promising position with sales almost equal to steam’s, dominated by the Columbia car out of Hartford, Connecticut. Others included the Indianapolis-built Waverley. Gasoline held the remaining 20 percent.

The three were quite different. Steamers were powerful and fast, but needed time to generate steam, and required a skilled operator. Gasoline engines were still cranky, temperamental and noisy. The electric, however, was silent and simple to drive, making it a particular favourite with women.

Automobile type electrics had arrived at about the same time as gasoline powered cars. Philip Pratt of Boston demonstrated an electrically powered three-wheel carriage in 1888.

Canada came quite early to the electric scene; its first electric automobile was constructed in Toronto in 1893 for patent attorney Frederick Featherstonhaugh. Designed by transplanted English electrician William Still, and built by carriage maker John Dixon, it was displayed at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition in 1893, and was used for many years by Mr. Featherstonhaugh as his personal transportation.

Electrics distinguished themselves in early speed contests. In a French hillclimb in 1898 an electric entered by Belgian, Camille Jenatzy averaged 18 mph (29 km/h), beating 56 gasoline and steam cars over the 1.8 km (1.1 mile) route.

This led to fierce competition between Jenatzy and another electric car driver, Count de Chasseloup-Laubat of France. It resulted in an electric car setting the world’s first land speed record, established by Chasseloup-Laubat’s Jeantaud electric at 39.3 mph (63.3 km/h) on December 18, 1898.

Jenatzy and Chasseloup-Laubat met in a challenge race on January 17, 1899. Jenatzy achieved a speed of 41.4 mph (66.6 km/h), briefly setting a new record, until Chasseloup-Laubat upped it to 43.7 (70.4). Jenatzy and Chasseloup-Laubat traded the record back and forth until Jenatzy’s bullet-shaped electric finally triumphed with a mark of 65.8 mph (106 km/h) in Nice, France on March 29, 1899. It was the first car to cover a mile in under one minute.

Jenatzy’s record stood for over three years until Frenchman Leon Serpollet reached 75 mph (121 km/h) in his Serpollet steamer on April 13, 1902. This ended the electric car’s dominance of the land speed record.

Following substantial market share at the turn of the century, electrics went into decline as the gasoline engine came under rapid development. Metallurgy made giant strides, improved ignition systems replaced the crude “hot tube” method, and new oil discoveries in Texas made gasoline plentiful.

By 1905 the gasoline engine had some 86 percent of the market; electric and steam held about seven percent each. But while gasoline was destined to be the power of choice, electrics had made somewhat of a comeback by 1910.

Electrics were still the quietest and easiest to operate, and enjoyed renewed popularity for around-town use, particularly with the well-to-do. They were favoured by doctors and other professionals who disliked the noise, crank starting and fumes of the gasoline engine.

The decisive blow to the electric came in 1912 with the introduction of the electric starter on the Cadillac. Invented by the brilliant Charles Kettering, it immediately freed the driver from the difficult and dangerous hand crank. Anyone could now operate a gasoline car.

Following the appearance of the electric self starter, electric car manufacturers began to disappear. The two longest survivors were the Detroit and the Rauch and Lang, later called Raulangs. Raulang lasted until 1928, and the Detroit, building cars largely to order, survived to 1938.

Electric car interest blipped in the 1950s and ’60s with the surfacing of environmental concerns. They got renewed interest with the oil crises of the 1970s, but were never a serious threat to the gasoline engine which by then was smooth, powerful and reliable.

The current interest is largely driven by California’s attempt to force auto manufacturers to build zero emission cars. With the gasoline engine a moving target, continually getting cleaner and more efficient, it appears that unless there is a dramatic breakthrough in storage battery technology, the pure electric car’s future is dim. General Motors made a brave attempt in the 1990s with its electric EV1, leased to motorists in the southwestern United States. But few were interested in a car with the driving range of a couple of gallons of gasoline.

The deficiencies that led to the original demise of the pure electric car, short driving range and high battery weight and cost, still plague it today. With technology as it existed at the turn of the twenty-first century, the best that electric power can probably hope for is to be paired with an internal combustion engine in a hybrid design, a la Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Civic Hybrid.

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