in ,

A Brief History of the Electric Car: Trials and Triumphs

When was the first electric car made? 1960? 2000?

Try 1835—maybe even a few years earlier. No one person can be given credit for the development of the electric vehicle, as the dates of some of the earliest developments are unclear. But contrary to many people’s assumptions, electric vehicles have a longer history than cars with internal combustion engines.  

In the Pole Position 

Thomas Edison sitting in the first electric truck, made in 1883.
Thomas Edison sits on the first electric truck, made in 1883.Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Electric vehicles had a nearly 50-year head start on fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Steam drove the first horseless carriages, but it was not a practical source of energy for personal vehicles. Once batteries were invented, electric motors soon followed, and soon people began putting those batteries and motors on carriages. Until Henry Ford came along with his Model T, battery-propelled electric vehicles dominated any vehicular travel faster than a horse.

Electric vehicles had a nearly 50-year head start on fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Steam drove the first horseless carriages, but it was not a practical source of energy for personal vehicles. Once batteries were invented, electric motors soon followed, and soon people began putting those batteries and motors on carriages. Until Henry Ford came along with his Model T, battery-propelled electric vehicles dominated any vehicular travel faster than a horse.

1800: Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic pile, which is able to store electricity chemically. We now call the voltaic pile a battery.

1801: Englishman Richard Trevithick develops a steam-powered carriage.

1821: English chemist Michael Faraday invents an electric motor driven by a voltaic pile.

1832-39: Scotsman Robert Anderson develops a battery-powered horseless carriage with a non-rechargeable battery.

1835: Dutch chemist Sibrandus Stratingh develops an “electromagnetic carriage,” one of which is on display in Groningen, the Netherlands—the oldest electric vehicle still in existence.

1839: Scottish chemist man Robert Davidson creates an electric locomotive that could travel 4 mph, far slower than steam locomotives of the day.

1859: The lead-acid battery is invented.

1881: French inventor Gustave Trouve exhibits a three-wheeled vehicle with a rechargeable battery at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris.

1882: English professor William Ayrton and Irish professor John Perry invent a three-wheeled electric vehicle that could travel up to 25 miles at 9 mph.

1882: English financier Paul Bedford Elwell and engineer Thomas Parker begin manufacturing rechargeable batteries.

Depot where electrically driven Paris cabs were fitted with freshly charged batteries, 1899.
A depot where electric cabs were fitted with re-charged batteries.Print Collector / Getty Images

1885: Carl Benz introduces the first internal combustion engine vehicle.

1887: Irishman John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tires make EVs more comfortable to ride.

1890; William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, introduced a six-passenger electric wagon, capable of achieving a maximum speed of 14 mph. An average stagecoach traveled three to five mph, so this was quite the improvement.

1897: The Morris and Salom Electric Carriage and Wagon Company runs a small fleet of electric cabs in New York City, driven by “lightning cabbies.”

1897: Electric cab companies scurry riders around the streets of Paris, New York, and London.

An Electric Motor Cab And Driver, circa 1897.
An electric cab on the streets of London, circa 1897.Heritage Images / Getty Images

1898: Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat sets the first land speed record for fastest land vehicle in the world at 39.24 mph. Electric vehicles continue to hold the land speed vehicle record until 1902.

1899: The Baker Motor Vehicle Company is founded. Thomas Edison was an early customer.

1900: A third of all vehicles on American roads were electric.1

1900: Ferdinand Porsche introduces the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, the world’s first petrol-electric hybrid vehicle, followed soon by imitators.

1901: British Queen Alexandra purchases a Columbia Electric car for driving around the grounds of Sandringham House.

1902: The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company launches a range of cars and trucks. Thomas Edison is his second customer.

The 1901 Columbia Electric car
The 1901 Columbia Electric car.Heritage Images / Getty Images

1903: Thomas Edison creates a nickel-iron battery for his electric vehicles, which could be charged twice as fast as the lead-acid battery.

1906: The Belgian Auto-Mixte hybrid vehicle introduces regenerative braking.

1914: The Detroit Electric car is introduced, using Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron battery, with a claimed range of 80 miles. The vehicle so impresses Henry Ford that he buys one for Thomas Edison and considers developing his own low-cost electric vehicles.

Pulling the Plug 

The dominance of electric vehicles was shattered by a single vehicle: the Model T. Mass-produced, it undercut the price of electric vehicles by more than half.1 The energy density of gasoline was far greater than that of a chemical battery. Once gasoline became cheap and roads began to be paved, the internal combustion engine took over the roads. By 1920, there were hardly any horses pulling carriages on roadways, and by 1935, there were no more electric vehicles either.

1908: Henry Ford introduces the Model T. 15,000 orders are placed within the first year.

1912: Charles Kettering invents the electric starter, making gasoline-powered cars easier to start.

1913: Studebaker announces the end of its electric vehicle production.

1918: Half of all cars in the United States are Model Ts.

1920s: Most automobile companies abandon development of electric vehicles.

1920s: Gasoline prices plummet with the discovery of oil in Texas oil. Gasoline stations appear alongside a paved road system.

1920s: The development of hybrid vehicles ends.

A Series of False Starts 

The devastation and shortages of World War II, then skyrocketing oil prices during the Oil Embargo of 1973, brought renewed interest in electric vehicles. Despite support from national governments for research and development, most electric vehicles failed to even make it to market, while those that did were small, urban commuter cars, leaving consumers with the impression that EVs were no more than modified golf carts. None survived more than a few years.

1940s: Devastation from World War II, including a shortage of petroleum products, revives interest in and production of electric vehicles.

1942: Peugeot introduces the three-wheeled Voiture Legere de Ville (Light City Car).

1940s: Italian car company Maserati shifts from race cars to electric vehicles.

1947: The Tachikawa Airplane company introduces electric vehicles to war-devastated Japan.

1956: After the Great Smog of 1952 brings grips London for nearly a week, Britain’s Clean Air Act renews interest in electric vehicles.

1959: The Henney Kilowatt electric vehicle is introduced by the Eureka Williams Corporation, with a top speed of 60 mph and a range of 60 miles, but only 100 vehicles are ever produced.

View of a woman charging the 'Henney Kilowatt', an electric automobile engineered by the Eureka Williams Corporation, 1966.
The Henney Kilowatt, charged at home, 1966.PhotoQuest/Getty Images

1960s: Electric vans become popular as delivery vehicles in Great Britain.

1962: Peel Engineering introduces the three-wheeled electric P50 Microcar, the smallest production car in history. Enthusiasts re-introduce it in 2011.

Model Karen Burch at the wheel of a Peel P50, a new microcar produced by the Manx Peel Engineering Company, outside the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, before the start of the Motor Cycle Show, London, 8th November 1962.
The ill-fated Peel P50 microcar, 1962.Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1964: General Motors begins work on the Electrovair, a modified Corvair with a powerful electric motor. Poor battery design dooms the vehicle, which never makes it to market.

1966: Scottish Aviation introduces the ill-fated Scamp with a 30-mile range using innovative zinc-air batteries. After miserably failing an industry standard road test, production of the Scamp is discontinued after only 13 vehicles are produced.

A Scottish Aviation Scamp electric city car, London, UK, 1966.
The ill-fated Scamp, 1966, arguably the most pitiful vehicle ever.Evening Standard / Getty Images

1967: California establishes the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which begins the state’s push for reducing or eliminating vehicle emissions.

1968: The Mars II is introduced in the United States with a maximum range of 120 miles. Fewer than fifty vehicles are ever made.

1974: The U.S. Government supports conversion of a Buick Skylark into a hybrid electric vehicle, but the project is rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency.

1974-1977: SebringVanguard introduces the CitiCar, which underwhelms American consumers with its top speed of 38 mph for the “high-power” edition. It sells a total of 2,300 cars.

1973-76: The Enfield 8000, supported by the British government’s Electricity Council, fails to attract customers. No more than 150 cars are ever produced.

Passersby pause beside a Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, an electric, parked on an unspecified street, Washington DC, February 18, 1974.
The Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, 1974.PhotoQuest / Getty Images

1970s: Fiat, General Motors, and Nissan develop prototypes that they never bring to market.

1982: The U.S. Department of Energy increases funding for hybrid and electric vehicle research and development. Advanced electric powertrains are the result.

1985: Sinclair Vehicles introduces the C5, a one-person electric vehicle, with a lack of weather protection and only 20 miles of range. Production ceases within 8 months of release, and only 5,000 vehicles are sold.

The Sinclair C5 electric vehicle.
The Sinclair C5 electric vehicle.Keystone/Getty Images

1985: Volkswagen experiments with electric and hybrid versions of its popular Golf vehicles.

1992: Renault launches the Zoom, a foldable city car, with many of the features of full-sized vehicles. The vehicle never makes it out of concept stage.

The Renault Zoom
The innovative and doomed Renault Zoom.Pierre VAUTHEY / Getty Images

1996: General Motors introduces the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle, then prematurely cancels all of its leases, withdraws the vehicle, and controversially scraps it in 2002.

General Motors' EV1
The short-lived EV1 on the streets of Palm Springs, California.David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

Pedal to the Metal 

The turn of the 21st century saw electric vehicles and hybrids take places alongside gas-powered vehicles on the roadway. The widely popular Prius established hybrids as reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles with fewer emissions, while the lithium-ion battery allowed the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Roadster to bring the electric vehicles out of the “street-legal golf cart” era. While the Leaf filled a niche, Tesla’s vehicles disrupted an entire industry, leading to increasing EV sales and pressuring legacy automakers to introduce an ever-growing line of electric vehicles.

2000: The Toyota Prius is introduced worldwide as the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, inspiring other manufacturers to introduce their own hybrids.

The Toyota Prius in 2004.
The Toyota Prius in 2004.Handout / Getty Images

2010: The Nissan Leaf is introduced with lithium-ion batteries, winning many “car of the year” awards and becoming (until 2020) the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.

2010: Tesla introduces the Roadster, turning heads and changing minds about electric vehicles.

The Tesla Roadster
The Tesla Roadster.Heritage Images / Getty Images

2012: The Model S, Tesla’s first passenger vehicle, is released, becoming the best-selling electric vehicle in the U.S. the following year.

2012: Renault introduces the Zoe to the public and soon becomes the top-selling European electric vehicle of all time.

2016: The Chevrolet Bolt EV is unveiled and becomes Motor Trend’s Car of the Year the following year.

2017: The Tesla Model 3, a scaled-down, lower-priced version of the Model S, is aimed at a mass audience. By the end of 2020, it becomes the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.

2020: Annual sales of electric vehicles in the United States increased by 1.1 million since 2010

US President Joe Biden test drives a GMC Hummer EV at the General Motors Factory ZERO electric vehicle assembly plant in Detroit 

By David Kuchta

Emily In Paris: 8 Questions Season 2 Needs To Answer

PHOTOS: The historic partial lunar eclipse around the world