History of the electric car then and now
Alice Poole

Alice Poole

Alice applies her extensive test drive experience and her passion for motors to bring you informed and characterful articles and vehicle reviews.

Read time of 5 minutes.

Do you know how old the first electric car is?

Although electric cars are commonly perceived to be a recent invention, their history dates to the nineteenth century.

The exact date of the first electric vehicle is widely debated.

But we know that the first iterations of the electric car appeared in the early nineteenth century, with the rest of the century littered with various innovations and different takes on battery-powered vehicles.

It can be easy, because modern electric cars haven’t been around as long, to think of the electric car as a much newer invention.

But read on to find out the real story behind the modern EV – you might just be surprised.

Electric Cars From Nineteenth Century

Left: an electric car from 1893 | Right: Thomas Parker's electric car


For much of the early nineteenth century, the main form of transport was horse and cart – and had been for centuries before that. The invention of the wheel revolutionised transportation, and it wasn’t until the invention of the automobile that the world was once again shaken up.

But before the petrol-powered car became available for the mass market, inventors across Europe and the US experimented with electric power, eventually creating the first small-scale electric cars.

Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is credited with creating one of the first electric carriages sometime in the 1830s – likely around 1832 – but because the rechargeable battery had not yet been invented, he treated it more like a fun trick than a serious transportation option.

In 1837, another Scottish inventor – Robert Davidson – developed a prototype electric locomotive. By 1841 he’d built a better one, which could go 1.5 miles at a top speed of 4 mph and tow six tonnes.

But then it needed new batteries.


French physicist Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable battery in 1859, finally making the electric vehicle idea way more realistic, and cementing Plante’s place in automotive history.

But it wasn’t until 1884 (a year before the Benz patent Motorwagen, the world’s first production car) that Thomas Parker – who worked on electrifying the London Underground – also created the first roadworthy prototype electric car.

It’s believed that Parker used his invention to travel to and from work in Wolverhampton. A second prototype of his EV was transported to France for mass production – but the ship carrying it sank, along with Parker’s dreams of electric motoring for the masses.

The first mass production of an electric carriage came about towards the end of the century.

William Morrison, based in Iowa, USA, applied for a patent in 1890 for the carriage that he’d built earlier in the 1880s. It was powered by a 4bhp electric motor that took 10 hours to recharge, and had a top speed of between six and 12mph, but offered an impressive range of over 100 miles.

It was a big talking point at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and though Morrison himself was more interested in the batteries than the automotive itself, it certainly caught the attention of other inventors.

Porsche First Electric Car

Porsche's first electric car

The 1890s was a decade of electric innovation.

In 1894, Philadelphians Pedro Salom and Henry Morris got a patent for their EV (adapted from technology used in electric street cars and boats). Named the Electrobat, it was heavy, and slow, and at first much more like a trolley car.

But it eventually evolved, and by 1896 the rear-steer carriages had two 1.1kW motors on board, a range of 25 miles and a top speed of 20mph.

The pair had also built a couple of electric Hansom cabs designed to compete with the traditional horse-drawn ones that had been used in New York for decades. They sold the idea to Issac L. Rice, who then incorporated the Electric Vehicle Company.

By the end of the decade, they had more than 100 electric cabs in use in New York, with smaller fleets operating in Boston and Baltimore.

But it wasn’t just America benefiting from EV tech – across the pond Walter Bersey had also built a fleet of electric taxis that were operating in London.

Another milestone was hit in 1899 when a Belgian-made electric car became the first road vehicle to travel at more than 62mph. This new land speed record stood until 1902, when it was unfortunately broken by a steam powered car.


By the turn of the century, electric cars made up a third of all vehicles on the road in America, and interest in electric vehicles began to grow in the first decade.

Ferdinand Porsche experimented with hybrid electric technology, while other inventors, including Thomas Edison, started to explore ways that battery electric technology could be improved.

He’d already built an experimental car in 1889 (named the Edison Electric Runabout), but the project was shelved until 1905 to test experimental nickel-alkaline batteries. Later, in 1914, Edison partnered with Henry Ford and the two worked on a way to create a cheap electric car.

As the century dragged on, however, things were not looking so good for the electric car.

There were some highlights: Detroit Electric began in 1907, and was successful for some time, with many rich women preferring to drive an EV over the earlier internal combustion engine cars because they didn’t require hand cranking.

1908 Ford Model T

1908 Ford Model T

But Henry Ford’s own Model T sounded the death knell for the electric car, and heralded the age of the mass produced gas powered car. The first Model T in 1908 cost $850, with most electric cars at the time costing at least twice that.

And with the price dropping year on year – the Ford Model T would set you back under $300 if you bought one in 1923 – the electric cars of the time just could not compete at the same level.

Ironically, it was an electric motor that really signalled the beginning of the end for the early electric cars.

Charles Kettering invented the electric starter for the 1912 Cadillac, which removed the issue of the hand-crank for combustion cars as it gained popularity. With petrol-powered cars becoming both affordable and cleaner, there wasn’t much reason for the average person to opt for an EV over a Model T.

There was a slight spike during WWI, when gas prices rose, but even Detroit Electric were struggling by this point, often building their new cars on bodies that were several years old.

Electric cars fell out of favour as quickly as they’d fallen into, though they did have some use still: Britain maintained a fleet of electric milk floats into the 1980s, where the short-range, low-speed usage suited the technology of the time.


Though electric cars themselves died a death for some time, the wider interest never truly waned.

In 1953, Henney – a custom coachworks producing ambulances, hearses and limos - acquired Eureka Williams, before becoming part of the National Union Electric Co. conglomerate with businesses like Emerson radio and Exide batteries.

Along with Caltech scientists and engineers, Henney invested in electric car tech and built its first Kilowatt car in 1959, with a 36-volt system, 40-mile range and 40mph top speed. By 1960 the car had been significantly upgraded, with a top speed of 60mph and a – you guessed it – 60 mile range.

Experimentation with electric powered vehicles seemed to pick up again in the ‘60s.

General Motors played around with the tech throughout the decade, producing the Electrovair II in 1966. Its silver-zinc batteries gave it a more powerful motor, which resulted in a top speed of 80mph and a range between 40 and 80 miles.

Unfortunately for GM, the batteries could only be recharged 100 times, and the batteries themselves cost an eye-watering $160,000 to replace.

There were other experimental EVs floating around at the same time: General Electric had the Delta electric car (which was described as ‘repulsively ugly’), while Ford had one that used expensive nickel-cadmium batteries that made no difference to the performance.

Citicar Electric Car

Left: 1976 Citicar | Right: 1977 Citicar

The oil embargo of 1973 sparked some of the first necessary change.

With oil prices rocketing to $12 per barrel overnight, electric cars suddenly seemed like a welcome alternative.

The first Citicar (essentially a glorified golf cart) launched in 1974 with a top speed of 25mph, while later variants had a top speed of 40mph and a range of 40 miles. 2300 Citicars were built between 1974 and 1977, when the company was sold to Commuter Vehicles Inc., and the car was rebadged as the Commuta-Car.

It eventually sold 4444 units, making Sebring-Vanguard and Commuter Vehicles the largest EV producer in America until Tesla overtook it in 2013.

The Californian mandate in the 1990s that said car manufacturers had to sell a small percentage of zero-emission vehicles also sparked another way of innovation.

The commercialisation of the lithium-ion battery in 1991 meant that new electric cars could travel much further than they ever had before, which helped car makers significantly.

GM, who had already dabbled in EVs back in 1966, tried again. Applying all the tech it had to the problem, GM wanted to establish themselves as industry leaders with their concept Impact car, and eventual production model the GM EV1.

A tiny two-seater, it went against the tide of what the people of the time wanted, which was big old SUVs. And when the mandate was lifted after intensive lobbying, the GM EV1 dropped off the face of the earth.


Left: GM EV1 | Right: GM EV1 second generation


But the GM EV1 didn’t go to waste.

Alan Cocconi founded AC Propulsion in 1992, which gave the EV1 much of the electric tech that it needed to work. AC Propulsion also created the tzero with lead-acid batteries, but as lithium-ion became more commercially viable, a man named Martin Eberhard commissioned a tzero with these instead.

Martin Eberhard, along with Marc Tarpenning, eventually created Tesla Motors in 2003.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The mid-2000s saw plenty of EV innovation, from Tesla’s 2008 Roadster to the launch of the first Nissan Leaf in 2010, which brought affordable, modern electric driving to the masses.

Since then, the electric car industry has grown in leaps and bounds.

These days, there’s no shortage of choice if you’re looking at electric car leasing.

From high-performance cars like the Tesla Model Y and Fisker Ocean, to practical and affordable options like the BYD ATTO 3 or MG ZS EV, or even something small and quirky like the Honda e or Fiat 500e, there’s sure to be an electric car that suits your budget.

And – best of all – you can impress all your friends with your newly acquired EV history knowledge.

Image Credits

1976 Citicar: Klaus Nahr

1977 Citicar: Creative Commons

GM EV1: RightBrainPhotography

GM EV1 second gen: RightBrainPhotography

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