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The International Writers Magazine: Volt Face

Want to buy an electric car?
• Sam Hawksmoor
The electric car was the go to purchase back in 1912. What happened? Will the EV stick around this time around?

Mustang EV

OK there’s a part of me that would love to own a Mustang with an 90kwh battery that you can recharge up to 80 percent in just 40 minutes. (If you can find a working charger). It’ll never happen because I never seem to actually earn anything, being a penniless writer an’ all.  I’d prefer it to the Nissan Leaf that only has a range of 170 miles or many hybrids that obviously go further using their petrol engines but cost a bomb to service and lose their value faster than they can accelerate.

Electric sales are rising but there is resistance. Is it price? Some put it down to conspiracy theory – the oil giants crushing the electric manufacturers, but today mostly it would be down to range anxiety.  The Teslas are attractive to look at and sell well over a million a year now, despite a number of quality problems.  I’d not be put off buying one, although there is promise of an electric Alfa Romeo in 2023. I can think of a number of other cars, all petrol, that explode or catch fire.  I remember walking in Lille a couple of years go and a brand new Renault suddenly burst into flames at the traffic lights and there was me dragging my sister away fast in case it exploded.

But one hundred years ago when the world was younger and there were six billion less people, electric cars were available everywhere and there was a huge choice.  Perfect for city driving and they didn’t pollute.  I happen to be in possession of a USA road map (The Blue Book) from that period which offers no information on recharging outside of cities. Perhaps wouldn’t have wanted to try my luck outside a city in an electric car on mostly dirt roads but certainly people were buying them inside cities and you had a great choice.

Babcock For example you could be driving a Babcock Model 12 Gentleman’s Roadster (with faux radiator) for $2000 in 1910 or the Model 16 Touring Car.  Seating five, it had a Cape top, adjustable steering wheel to allow easy access and egress, a twenty hp motor, Edison battery standard for $3800
(1909 Model Shown)

Babcock 1906-1912 Babcock Electric Carriage Co. 234 West Utica St. Buffalo, NY. produced a full range of models. The cars had steering wheels & suicide doors. (I like the term Suicide Doors! Try mentioning that on a modern car now.)

Baker Electric Cars – the biggest manufacturer a hundred years ago was even supplying Police cars and the provided the first automobile fleet to the White House. In 1913 $2,800 would get you a four-seater with Exide batteries, six forward speeds (Steering wheel optional!) I remember reading in Popular mechanics that Jay Leno has one and still drives it. "The magnificent new Baker Coupe" in 1913 was "just what the public demanded, a genuine automobile, not an electrically driven coach with increased roominess, full limousine back, longer wheelbase, graceful, low-hung body lines, with both interior and exterior conveniences and appointments which have set a new mark in motor car refinement". It also had revolving front seats which faced forward or "turn about". They were eventually outsold by the Detroit Electric company and forced to merge.

Owens Hybrid Leno also owns the wonderful Owens Magenetic Hybrid (the first Hybrid from 1915 no less) as did Enrico Caruso. The engine powers the Westinghouse generator, which creates a large magnetic force field between the engine and drivewheels. There's no mechanical transmission. Owens were sophisticated and had an advanced, 24-volt electrical system. But if you had a problem you had to ship it back to Cleveland where it was made.

Few of the big manufacturers you know now were into electric vehicles, but General Electric had invested big time.  Electric car sales peaked in 1912. What killed the electric car was a combination of World War One – and a big effort to produce reliable vehicles and trucks for the war effort in Europe. When the US joined the war in 1917 it was the petrol engine that emerged king.  The drawback for the petrol engine was hand-cranking. But the invention of the electric starting motor changed all that and was quickly adopted. That, and the development of paved roads.  Roads beget gas stations and unless you wanted to throw away your battery every time you ran out of power – no one wanted to risk long journeys in a battery powered automobile. Petrol simply went further and combined with refinement of the petrol engine and the muffler, meant that electric vehicles were simply left behind as too slow (40mph was barely reached) and unreliable because of the battery technology. The Owens Hybrid (See photo) should have shown the way but perhaps it was too sophisticated and expensive for its time and people could have paid thousands less for a stinky Model T. In fact Ford pricing his primitive cars at $440 made the expensive electric cars seem exotic. They were literally priced out of existence.

Was Rockefeller and the oil companies behind the demise of the electric vehicle?  Perhaps, but not really, just as now, would you rather drive a car that gets 50mpg and will do at least 500 miles between fill ups or a Nissan Leaf that needs to be recharged for hours at a time after a hundred fifty miles.  It’s a no brainer and the Leaf costs $10,000 more. In the UK you won't be able to buy a petrol or diesel car after 2030 so we shall all be driving cheaper Chinese EV MG's from then on I guess. They are pretty good value actually.

VW EV Combi Just like 1913 - you need to be rich to buy electric. The VW ID Buzz all electric starts at $60,000 for delivery in 2024. * Expect it to be a best seller.

The new 2023 VW ID4 will start at $43,000 US or the all electric Polestar 2 will set you back $49,000 at base price or $75,000 for the BST editio 270 - but these prices make no sense if you are a family man on a budget. Gas wins for now.

I’d like to think, in some parallel world where WW1 didn’t happen, that the electric car would have continued to develop and perhaps some city fathers might have realised that gasoline fumes were poisoning us all and made electric cars mandatory in cities.  That might have saved the electric car, but we don’t live in a parallel world.

I leave you with these links to all the electric car manufacturers in the USA around 1900 to 1913.  It’s much bigger than you think.

All the electric car companies here

More Electric Vehicles here

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