You’d be forgiven for assuming that the electric car was a modern invention, but it actually boasts quite a lengthy history. In fact, the first electric vehicles can be traced back to the 19th century.
It’s not completely clear who is responsible for developing the first electric vehicle, but there were a few inventors around at the same time bringing out early versions of vehicles that combined electric motors and motorcars. In the 1830s, for example, Dutchman Sibrandus Stratingh created an electromagnetic cart, while American Thomas Davenport combined an electric motor and small electric car.
Less than 20 years later, the first rechargeable lead-acid battery was invented for use in electric cars by Frenchman Gaston Plante. This was considered a turning point in the invention of electric vehicles. In 1891, the first vehicles to use these rechargeable batteries were introduced – they could reach top speeds of 14 mph.
Early electric vehicles enjoyed great popularity and were preferred over petrol cars that were noisy, smelly and needed hand-cranking to start them. Electric vehicles were also smoother to drive and didn’t require gear changes. By the beginning of the 20th century, electric vehicles had taken off in Europe and the USA.
Electric vehicles weren’t without their problems, however. They couldn’t go very fast or very far. With improvements to motorways and petrol getting cheaper, drivers became increasingly attracted to vehicles that had the speed to go further. When the electric starter was invented for combustion cars in 1912 (cutting out the need for hand-cranking) this also strengthened the appeal of combustion cars over electric vehicles. A further improvement in the form of a noise muffler also added to the combustion car’s growing popularity.
In the post-war era, when energy prices started to rise, and the oil crisis took its toll, interest in electric cars was reignited, particularly in the USA. By the late 1960s, various car manufacturers were hard at it creating the next generation of electric motors.
One of the most notable inventions in the history of the electric car is the Sinclair C5 in the 1980s. It was thought this vehicle would revolutionise the market, but it transpired into a disastrous flop. Unable to climb hills and difficult for other road users to see, just 5,000 of the 14,000 produced were sold. Further attempts have since been made to fine-tune this invention, with the new Iris E-Trike being the latest electric tricycle to hit the market.
As environmental concerns became high on the agenda, and fuel prices continued to rise, car manufacturers in the last 20 years or so have yet again been turning their attentions to creating energy-efficient, low-emission vehicles. The popular hybrid vehicles of the late 1990s, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, have paved the way for a whole new generation of hybrid cars, with the market continuing to grow.
It looks like the future might be electric!
If you already own an electric vehicle, take advantage of Driveline’s electric vehicle charging station in Cornwall if you’re visiting that part of the country.