How salesmen harmed and coachmen helped electric vehicles a century ago

Electric vehicles were the livelihood of their salesmen, and a threat to people whose job was to maintain and run horses. You would expect salesmen to build a good reputation for electrics and the coachmen to badmouth them, but the opposite happened a century ago.

When electric vehicles started becoming popular in the 1910s, they had to fight the bad rep unscrupulous salesmen had given them over a decade ago. The very early electrics were just not capable of competing with gasoline cars. They could not do anything strenuous, and were designed to run errands in cities where charging facilities were available.

Telling walk-in customers honestly that the car they are looking at will not carry heavy loads, climb a hill, or go more than 20-30 miles without charging may earn you points in the church, but you are not going to close a sale that way. The salesmen, who had to worry about their immediate earnings, not the reputation of electric vehicles, promised buyers the moon. They ensured a steady stream of bad word-of-mouth.

Here’s what an article in a motor journal of the time said:

“…the misapprehensions were quite natural, and had given rise to deep-seated distrust of the practicability of the electric… They are to be blamed on the salesmen of the first crude electric cars, who, in their anxiety for commission and salary increases, tried to create a volume of business by making the most extravagant promises. The manufacturers of both electric trucks and pleasure cars never intended them for any but city service… The old time salesmen… sowed seeds of disappointment, distrust and disfavor.”

Teamsters favoured electrics

Equally unexpected was the attitude of coachmen and teamsters whose business depended on horses. When electric trucks proved themselves to be the most economical means of carriage within cities, these men told the Electric Vehicle Association (EVA) of America — an industry body — that they supported the switch to electrics.

On April 22, 1913, William H Ashton, general organiser of International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Chauffeurs (America) read a paper at a meeting of the EVA stating that the Brotherhood, which had 62,000 members, “believes in progress and recognises that the coming of automobiles is a step in its march.”

This support was largely due to the EVA’s encouragement to horse drivers to learn driving: “Our association has always looked to experienced horse drivers as the best material out of which to train chauffeurs, because their knowledge of streets, localities and traffic regulations is so valuable.” Usually, a horse driver learnt to run an electric vehicle in less than an hour.

The prospect of reduced labour was no less an inducement. Horses had to be looked after everyday, from before sunrise to sometimes late in the night. They kicked and bit, and fell ill and died. There was always a lot of manure to deal with in the yard. And horse drivers carried the smell with them everywhere. Electric vehicles were neither temperamental nor smelly. Best of all, they did not require any Sunday stable duties.

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