Why Mass Electric Car Concepts of 1940s May Finally Arrive in 2020s

Electric trucks charging in Goods Depot, St Pancras Station, London 1917

The BBC makes a classic error in their new report by saying GM started electric mass vehicle development in 1990s (shutdown in 2002 by President Bush).

Why electric cars will take over sooner than you think… The first crude electric car was developed by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in the 1830s. But it is only in the last few years that the technology has been available at the kind of prices that make it competitive.

Source: BBC.

Sooner? I think electric cars are VERY late in taking over despite being price competitive 100 years ago.

And why is that BBC image caption so wrong?

Not only was the EV1 very clearly NOT the first GM attempt at an electric vehicle (many attempts had been made for a long time prior due to favorable economics, all the way back to the early 1900s), even the EV1 was “launched” long before 1998.

Real history: GM mass-produced 682 electric trucks in 1912 with lead-acid and Edison nickel-iron batteries. Does that count as a first attempt?

GM Advertisement for its electric engine trucks in 1912. (Click to enlarge)

Apparently charging the popular GM electric vehicles back then looked something like this:

Moreover “the kind of prices that make it competitive” isn’t any kind of new story, since those started waaaay back in time.

By 1900, electric cars were at their heyday, accounting for around a third of all vehicles on the road. During the next 10 years, they continued to show strong sales.” By 1912, there were 38,843 on US roads.

The infamous Henry Ford in 1914 announced the “Ford Electric” he would sell for $900 with a range of 100 miles (based on the Anderson “Detroit Electric”, which sold for around $3,000 at that time).

1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham electric car driven by Ford that nobody ever talks about. Source: The Henry Ford.

Clara Ford, wife of Henry Ford, drove this Detroit Electric. In the years before World War I many women chose electric cars because they started instantly without hand cranking and had no difficult-to-shift transmission. The superintendent of the Detroit Electric factory employed his daughter, Lillian Reynolds, to sell to women — including Clara Ford, who drove this car into the 1930s.

The following Detroit Electric brochure even spells out having 100-mile range in the very car Ford was driving around (real world tests turned in double that range) while her husband claimed he could get the price down 2/3 (to $25,000 in today’s terms) if he shifted the company from manufacturing to assembling.

Click to enlarge

The news of 1914 reported “Detroit Electric is not overpriced — or even high priced” when Ford and Edison purchased them.

Fun history fact: Ford today will charge you basically the same $50,000 whether for a gasoline or electric variant of their F-150 truck.

To recap, in 1907 William Anderson started producing electric vehicles under the brand Detroit Electric. In 1909 it acquired the Elwell-Parker electric motor and controller manufacturer (considered the best available). In 1911 it offered an Edison nickel-iron battery option to replace its rechargeable lead-acid. The company was so successful in sales and engineering it was even owned in 1914 by Ford, Edison and several major automobile executives… manufacturing electric cars and home chargers all the way to the 1940s.

Think for a minute about the fact that artificially polluting a market to deny the true economics of an electric car might just be an entirely political move made by a particular group of American men.

I mean when an electric car stops, you stop paying for power consumption, for example. And electric cars don’t spew dangerous lead fumes and toxic noise into neighborhoods that everyone else has to pay to clean up for decades afterwards.

The 1970s battery innovations were indeed the very definition of market response to a loss of control over monopolized gasoline prices: panicked predictions of fuel prices going over $2/gal (prices had spiked from an average of $0.36/gallon — $1.75/gallon in today’s dollars — to $1.19/gallon in 1980 — $2.95/gallon in today’s dollars).

Yes, people in America used to go into a total panic at the realization gasoline is a centrally-controlled and planned system that could artificially reach $3.00/gallon.

“Americans’ fear turned a small interruption in supply into a major crisis. In truth, the major oil companies were able to shift around distribution in ways that should have minimized the impact in the 1970s. But panic took hold, and the rush to tank up compounded the situation.” …the response to the 1970s oil shocks gave the planet a life-saving head start in the struggle to avoid catastrophic climate change.

That kind of panic ties into the fact that modern affordable electric mass vehicle development really comes from 1940s energy scarcity issues (postwar Tokyo’s acute gasoline shortages coupled with an abundance of hydro-electricity), as I’ve written here before.

Nissan’s car manufacturing origin story delivers us this 1946 electric car (predecessor to Datsun 1200), including “bomb bay” rapid battery replacement doors on the sides.

Fun history fact: hydro-power generated a full third of America’s electricity by 1940, and nearly 80% of power in the western states… and yet somehow Japan’s air force (after losing the world war) were tasked by America with creating the modern mass-produced electric car.

Anyway, it’s out of this foundation in real history that we should never forget that by 1980 the executives at GM were openly promising mass electric cars would be on the road in just 5 years, long pre-dating the EV-1.

G.M. is planning to put a mass-produced electric car on the road by the mid-1980’s. Alex Mair, vice president in charge of technical staffs, said that by 2020, 10 to 15 percent of G.M.’s total production will be electric vehicles. “We think we’re leading the world this time around,” Mr. Mair said.

This time around meant what decade…?

The EV-1 was at least their third major attempt at promoting mass production of an electric car and came late. Definitely NOT the first attempt.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs somewhere in here on terminology, but it probably matters.

When GM displayed in 1990 their very poorly branded “Impact” electric car (alleged predecessor to their EV-1), at best we could call it a first GM model “designed to be an electric vehicle from the outset”.

But we just can’t avoid the fact so many other electric GM cars had been attempted before an EV-1.

The GM-based Silver Volt, for example, was a 1980 plug-in hybrid based on a Buick station wagon.

1980 GM Silver Volt electric station wagon

There even was a 1979 joint venture between the Department of Energy, GE and Chrysler called the Electric Test Vehicle (ETV-1).

Before the EV-1 came the ETV-1. Makes sense, I guess.

Watch the following 1980 TV archive footage with the cool 1978 GM Electrovette for what they officially sounded like to the public at that time (“…by the year 1990 GM says 10 out of 100 drivers could be behind the wheel of this kind of vehicle.”):

That’s right, a GM plan for mass-produced electric cars dates to at least 1976 as this one clearly shows.

A 1976 concept (fueled by the obvious economics of electricity — fear of gasoline supply monopoly) produced GM’s 1978 Chevrolet Electrovette

BUT WAIT. The GM heritage center itself tells us that the 1970s aren’t early enough:

The Electrovair was developed in 1964 as a conversion of the popular Chevrolet Corvair. The engine and transmission were removed and replaced with electric system components. It had a pioneering 90 HP AC induction motor and a 450-volt silver-zinc battery. […] The Electorvair II was announced in 1966. It was more powerful than the Electrovair I with 115-HP and 532 volts. Its silver-zinc batteries enabled a top speed 80 MPH and a range 40-80 miles.

There’s even a video of that too. Here’s GM’s 1966 electric car, an upgrade from their 1964 model, where they end on a sour note:

I could do this all day. Here’s the 1969 GM XP 512E, where “E” clearly stands for electric:

Apparently charging GM electric vehicles in 1969 looked something like this:

These micro vehicles might look silly by today’s monster-truck standards of power-projection… yet someone took their Enfield E8000 ECC (Electric City Car) and updated the batteries to produce 1,000HP, posting a quarter-mile run at 12.56-seconds going over 101 mph!

When originally manufactured in 1974, the E8000 was equipped with 300 kg of lead-acid batteries for 96 volts, now Smith equipped his with 145 kg of li-ion batteries for 378 volts.

This wasn’t a GM, or even an American car. It was a design instigated by the United Kingdom Electricity Council in 1966 (perhaps aligned with the 1963 US Clear Air Act). I just mention it here because its design was so good it allegedly seriously alarmed California’s Governor: Ronald Reagan.

There’s only one dog in this E8000 promotional photo from 1975.

To be clear, all these modern attempts by GM to innovate in electric cars through the 1960s and 1970s were ruthlessly shut-down for purely political gain by the GOP under the thumb of the oil industry when Reagan became President in 1981.

And somehow nobody remembers any of the electric cars from these decades?

The BBC falsely calling an EV-1 the first attempt by GM… not only ignores an obvious reality in car history, it badly obscures how electric car innovations were AGAIN aggressively shut-down in the 2000s by President Bush… a sad repeat of America’s short-sighted right-wing party addiction to oil.

White House Joins Fight Against Electric Cars: The Bush administration went to court today to support the automobile industry’s effort to eliminate requirements in California that auto manufacturers sell electric cars.

Let me spell this out more clearly. Ronald Reagan in the 1960s led the GOP to carve out an exception in California to national clean air regulations so they could kill the electric car. Yet when Reagan unexpectedly became president in 1980s he flipped around to kill the electric car nationally, facing the awkward fact that California had been carved out and trying to keep the electric car alive.

This kind of soft flopping around wasn’t unusual for Reagan. He fought to ban guns in California so the police could more easily kill Black Americans, yet after becoming president he opposed bans on guns… so the police could more easily kill Black Americans. See the consistency within the contradiction?

Such hyper-political winds so very artificially manipulating markets and blocking innovation in America always has been the real problem stalling an inevitable arrival.

That, plus the sad fact that people seem to not learn history.

Did you even know Reagan tried to destroy electric cars, not to mention ban guns? Shame on the BBC for getting American history so wrong. They’re not even American so what’s their excuse for such ignorance?

Bonus history points: Here’s a poster with some obvious reasons from 1917 why inexpensive electric trucks make more sense than a highly-centralized and environmentally destructive model of gasoline that caused panics in the 1970s… all which still read true today (click to enlarge).

The Detroit Electric company in 1912 offered these contemporary-sounding thoughts on the subject in their brochure.

Electric delivery will supersede all other modes for city use, just as naturally as electric street railways, electric elevated railroads and electric locomotives for steam railroad terminals are taking the place of all other forms of locomotion. Wherever electricity has solved any problem, it has done so better than any other form of power. […] When the car stops, the power stops — and the expense for power. Detroit Electric commercial vehicles are noiseless, odorless… particularly appreciated by customers in all residential districts.

Click to enlarge

Or as the Smithsonian put it:

Come the turn of the 19th century, battery-powered machines were also entering into the fold; Ogden Bolton Jr. was issued a U.S. patent for his battery-powered bicycle in 1895.

We’re just now “entering the fold” like it’s 1895 again.

Even those annoying “new” electric scooters are as old as the electric car.

Source: Smithsonian. “Autoped Girl by Everett Shinn, in Puck, 1916”

One thought on “Why Mass Electric Car Concepts of 1940s May Finally Arrive in 2020s”

  1. I think those that are unfamiliar with EVs should know that they’ve been concepts dating back several decades, as detailed here. This is some good insight to know!

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