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Published on June 15th, 2016 | by Jose Pontes


Pre-History of EVs

June 15th, 2016 by  

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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About the Author

Always interested in the auto industry, particularly in electric cars, Jose has been overviewing the sales evolution of plug-ins through the EV Sales blog since 2012, 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 now a partner in EV-Volumes and works with the European Alternative Fuels Observatory on EV sales matters.

  • Jose Pontes

    In Megacities, the best solution is public transportation connected to (electric) car-sharing schemes, but i still see a lot of people wanting a car to go on holidays or visit the folks, so i believe car ownership will be increasingly less important for many urbanites, but still relevant for the general population.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Or less important if one can simply arrange to have a car show up to take them where they want to go.

      With a non-owner car use system not only would you save money but also be able to pick what fit your needs at the moment. You might call for a two-seater, a minivan, a pick-up, …. No need to own a “one size for all needs” vehicle.

  • Jessee McBroom

    Thanks for the post Jose. There is a bit of history behind the EV. The hydrogen car has a similar history with Nikola Teslas on board electrolysis system as well.

    • Jenny Sommer

      Why would Tesla have an onboard electrolysis system?

      • Jessee McBroom

        Because Nikola Tesla had a wide area of energy related interests. I am speaking of Nikola Tesla in this regard; not Tesla Motors.

        • Jenny Sommer

          I know you meant Nicola Tesla.
          Why would he do onboard electrolysis and where would the power come from?

          • Jessee McBroom

            Because he wanted to, and could; with an adequate generator and battery system.

          • Jenny Sommer

            But why would he built such a useless device? I don’t think he did.

  • Peter Udbjørg

    Good point(s), but remember that the car creates problems it can only solve itself. Merely replacing fossil cars with electric cars does not solve the problem of mass automobilism: Congested streets, cars clogging cities & being generally in the way for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport.
    If the gridlocks became electric tomorrow, we’d still see gridlocks. The car is in the way, not the way, for a sustainable future. Cities must be planned around effective public transportation. Planless urban sprawl must end.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Self-driving cars will help. Car sharing and impromptu car pools will reduce the number of cars on the road. And when not in use self-driving cars can take themselves off to a parking place away from the main traffic roads. There will be no need for parking in the congested parts of cities.

      Some sort of small number of passenger transportation is likely to continue. Buses and trains just aren’t convenient enough for many people.

      The solution to our really overburdened roads, the commute roads from the outskirts, may involve “cars” delivering riders to buses/light rail for the longer part of the trip and then another set of self-driving cars might distribute them to their doors.

    • ByronBradley

      Perhaps big cities should plan around public transport, but in small towns and rural areas, and even in big cities, needed and preferred individualized transport can be reduced in size and weight so they take up less space, cost less to drive, and pollute less. These can be small cars and even smaller bikes, scooters, skateboards, and roller-blades, all electric, preferably.

      • Bob_Wallace

        I suspect we’ll see a variety of vehicles waiting for our call. Little one/two person vehicles that scoot us around urban areas. Pickups for when we want to grab that sofa from Craig’s List.

  • VirgilliusAurelius

    You missed out the humble British milk float that delivered milk to millions of homes early in morning (so had to be silent)

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