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Pre-History of EVs

Editor’s Note: Per my request, José put together an article summary of initial Cleantech Revolution Tour presentation. It’s a fun dive into the “pre-history of EVs,” as José calls it. Enjoy! (For a much longer supplement to this, I recommend the “Electric Car Evolution” article I wrote last year.)

Most people believe that EVs are something of a novelty, good for the future but without a past and not really ready for the present. Well, in this article, we remind people that, actually, electric cars have been around for a long, long time….


The Never Satisfied EV

“The Never Satisfied” EV

EVs have been present since the 19th century, and at that time, they were considered the premium cars, because they were fast, silent, and always started — something that gas cars didn’t always guarantee….


Elwel-Parker electric car

The first production vehicle was, in fact, an electric vehicle. Produced in 1884, one year before the Benz gas car, the Elwell-Parker debuted in London. The idea was brought up because their promoters were tired of all of the existing pollution on British roads back then.

“Which pollution?” – you might ask.

Remember, back then, the main road transport “drivetrain” was the horse, which not only emitted gas emissions (methane), but also solid pollution. Now, imagine that in the most congested streets of London…

1900 Lohner–Porsche

Lohner - Porsche electric hybrid

One of the most innovative cars of the time, the Lohner-Porsche was the first to bear the Porsche name and was also the first “series plug-in hybrid,” so you might say this was the Chevy Volt of the 1900s…. It had a small gas engine that served as a generator for the batteries, while the electric motors were connected to the wheels, which allowed for this model to have the option of being two- or four-wheel drive.

1917 Detroit Electric


The peak of this first era of electric cars was around 1910, when EVs had around 30% market share in the USA and Detroit Electric was its best known brand, with some 30,000 units zooming around American streets. You could say this was the “Tesla” of its day.

But then the Ford Model T showed up and its mass adoption led to economies of scale which electric car manufacturers couldn’t follow, and this first age went the way of the Dodo.

Second Electric Car Age


Some 80 years after the “First Electric Car Age,” in the 1990s, ecological and oil concerns demanded new alternative fuels and EVs were back. In Europe, some carmakers created pilot programs (like BMW did) or electric versions of their regular cars (like the Renault Clio, Citroen Saxo, and Peugeot 106), but the real battleground was in the US, where the GM EV1 became the posterchild for a new generation of vehicles (Toyota RAV4 EV, Ford Ranger EV, etc.) that preannounced the New Age….

That is, until GM decided to destroy its own cars and kill the electric program altogether, a move that was soon followed by the remaining automakers, leading to the early end of this “Second Electric Car Age.”

The resulting outrage among EV owners and enthusiasts led to the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which you should really watch if you haven’t yet.

Some of the highlights of José’s presentation are also in the following video. To check out José, Viktor, Irle, me, and others in action live and in more depth, come to a Cleantech Revolution Tour conference!

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Written By

Always interested in the auto industry, particularly in electric cars, Jose has been overviewed the sales evolution of plug-ins on the EV Sales blog, allowing him to gain an expert view on where EVs are right now and where they are headed in the future. The EV Sales blog has become a go-to source for people interested in electric car sales around the world. Extending that work and expertise, Jose is also market analyst on EV-Volumes and works with the European Alternative Fuels Observatory on EV sales matters.


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