The cars we loved.
Recently there has been much in the way of excitement following the announcement of several all electric cars that will soon reach the market. Touted as the saviors of the personal motorcar as we know it, electric cars are expected to dramatically lower pollution levels and more importantly, reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. For all their sleekness and super efficiency, electric cars are not new. In fact they were among the first and most popular cars from the mid 19th century to the early decades of the 20th.
Internal combustion engines were dirty, hard to start (they often required difficult manual cranking ) and needed gears to be changed by the driver. These basic principles made driving a “man’s occupation” in the early days, effectively limiting the mobility of women or making them dependent on men to go anywhere. The alternative was getting dirty and being seen as unladylike by a strict Victorian male dominated society. Electric cars began to change all of that by allowing women to start and drive their own cars without the need to turn manual cranks or to change gears. The result was nothing short of a quite revolution. While men were racing and reaching speed records in electric cars (up to 62 mph by 1899), women were becoming more visible by running errands, and calling on gentlemen friends on their own schedules. Sisters were truly doin’ it for themselves. This may have contributed to the downfall of the electric car in the dawning years of the 20th century.
All this vehicular freedom worried the boys clubs who controlled the emerging gasoline powered automobile industry. Also worrisome to them was the fleeting charging infrastructure that was starting to develop in service to the electric car. Innovative concepts for battery exchange programs like Hartford Electric Company’s service in 1896 did not catch on soon enough to foster widespread use of the electric car in America. Each locality seemed to have it’s own system to support elecrtic cars, while the petrolum industrury was already standardizing its gas stations across the country. In addition to rare and scattered charging outlets, electric cars were very expensive, making them the preferred ride of wealthy women. Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric car because she did not want to be bothered with Fords manual labor inducing Model A. The low range of 10 miles or less on a charge was perfect for the dense compact urban areas that had yet to be transformed by sprawl inducing highways.
A number of factors killed the electric car’s early rise with the obvious being a lack of supporting infrastructure and the not so obvious and suprising phenomena of sexism . The women’s suffrage movements were gaining steam and the independence brought about by electric cars was fueling the fire. As gasoline powered cars made improvements and were able to promote their range and speed advantages, electric cars began to wane in popularity, as men were the dominant buyer of cars at the time. Victorian men, ever concerned with their masculine image, had begun to see electric cars as “ladies cars” and would not be caught in them. That mindset accelerated the decline of the electric car.
Fast forward to more than a hundred years or so and we see developments that have advanced the electric car to near mainstream status – again. Cities are now vastly sprawled with home, work and shopping destinations scattered about and connected by highways. Electric cars have advanced to the point of becoming dependable daily appliances able to augment and eventually replace their internal combustion counterparts. Thanks to the research pioneered by GM with the Saturn EV1 and Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan, the affordable all-electric car is now a reality.
Recently, public perceptions of electric cars as automotive oddities have been dashed in part by appearences on television. The Jay Leno Show featured a segment where celeberties drove a Ford Focus EV through an obstical course. The segement, although funny, proved that electric cars like their gas counterparts could handle well if piolited by a skilled driver.