Why you might have bought an electric car a century ago

Their range was increasing while driving costs were falling

On May 5, 1913 an electric car travelled 114.7 miles, or 185 km, without stopping to recharge. It was not a new model but a Bailey roadster made in 1909 running on Edison cells. It covered the 94-odd miles between Boston and Springfield averaging 19 miles per hour, which was impressive for a population used to horse carriages.

Even before that feat, America had started placing its trust in the humble electric. D B Rose, a representative of the Ohio Electric Car Company, reported there were more than 1,500 ‘electric pleasure cars’ In Los Angeles at the time.

In Cleveland, adequate charging facilities and good traffic conditions had made electric cars as popular as those running on petrol. The North California branch of Pacific Kissel Kar distributors had signed an agreement to sell the complete range of Baker electric cars “because of the increasing demand for electric vehicles, both pleasure and commercial.”

As the number of cars increased, power companies also became interested in the charging business. “One electric company earned $150,000 last year from this service alone and the work of charging batteries is reaching the aspect of a specialty to be in charge of qualified experts who will give service throughout the 24 hours rather than just when the central station meters do not indicate the peak load.”

An extra $150,000 was always welcome when a unit of electricity could cost as little as 1 cent.

Starting in 1895, Americans had bought electric cars worth $30 million in 18 years. Taking a rough price range of $3,000–4,000, that would mean 7,500–10,000 cars sold. Do not compare that number with the 76,230 cars Tesla sold in 2016. This is about a time when the automobile in any form was an innovation and a curiosity.


The base was small but electric car sales were booming. Almost a third of those 7,500–10,000 cars were sold during 1912–13, and a trade journal said: “From statistics obtained from 25 of the largest distributing points in the United States it is found that from 25 to 60 per cent of the cars running in these localities have been put in commission during the last 18 months.”

Why were electrics doing well?

The improvements made to cars and their batteries had finally made them practical alternatives to petrol cars. “All of them are fast enough to keep pace with the gas car in districts where proper traffic and speed laws are enforced. With a radius of from 40 to 50 miles, the electric meets all of the demands of the average owner who makes but few trips exceeding 100 miles. To the suburban resident who lives 20 miles or so from the heart of the city, the electric offers every possible inducement as a means of daily transportation to and from his place of business.”

The simplicity of electrics — ready to go at the press of a button — had also endeared it to Americans. “We are an ease-loving nation, and because of it the electric appeals. We want to derive as much pleasure and benefit out of our conveyances without necessitating the expenditure of effort. We like to feel that our wishes are fulfilled with the least outlay of energy. The average person’s idea of the operation practically tallies with the effort expended in pushing a button,” wrote a commentator.

Others bet on electrics citing the increasing price of petrol: “When the automobile first came into use, gasoline could be obtained for 10 cents per gallon, for at that time the fuel was practically a worthless by-product in the manufacture of kerosene… the price has steadily climbed until it now reaches 25 cents in some of the larger cities. As the gasoline forms but from 10 to 12 per cent of the volume of the crude oil, there is but little prospect of a reduction in price.” Another complaint against combustion engines was their enormous appetite for expensive lubricant and components like “spark plugs, piston rings, etc, not found on the electric.”

At the same time, electricity was becoming cheaper “as central stations grow larger and more efficient.” People were already talking about charging cars in the lean hours to further reduce rates. “The entire tendency of the electric car is toward a lower operating cost. Any load such as the electric car that allows the central station to run the entire day under normal operating conditions, reduces the overhead charges of the plant and therefore makes it possible to reduce the cost of current to the owner of the electric vehicle.”

Who wouldn’t have plumped for an electric car in this rosy scenario?



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