There seems to be two trains of thought when it comes to cars. On one hand we love our classics and the ease and familiarity of the time-tested internal combustion engine. On the other hand, there are calls for lowering emissions and lessening our dependence on oil. Politics aside, it is clear that the world has changed immensely over the history of the automobile. To quote Bob Dylan “the times they are a changin’.”
The call for electric vehicles seems to be the prevailing sentiment these days. The arguments over whether or not they are truly leaving less of a carbon footprint is a topic best left for someone who has way more background in quantifying such issues than this author. Just like every 1980s movie remake, everything old is new again. The debate over electric versus gasoline has been quietly discussed since the dawn of the automobile. The electrics have been there beside their gas-powered cousins all along.
Flashy new Tesla cars capture the headlines and are marketed as a fresh and new vision of the automotive world of tomorrow. But the electric vehicle is nothing new. In fact, it has been around in one shape or form since the 1830s. Yes the 1830s! The first “electric carriage” was the brainchild of Scottish inventor Robert Anderson. Of course it wasn’t very practical, but it was a spark that started the whole electric car movement. To understand what electric automobiles are about we must visit their history.
In 1834, Thomas Davenport’s background in the iron works industry introduced him to the new invention of the electro-magnet, which was showcased as a means to separate iron from the sand in the mining process. His fascination with magnets and electricity was the driving force behind his gift to the world – a practical electric motor. By utilizing the alternating polarities of magnets, he was able to figure out a concise means (brush and commutator) to add a current to the mix and voila… a working, compact electric motor. Davenport went on to produce arguably, the first legitimate electrical vehicle shortly after.
In 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté advanced the plausibility of the electric vehicle when he invented the lead-acid battery that could be recharged, unlike the single use battery (a.k.a. primary cells) devised by Davenport in his vehicle which ironically was powered by crude oil.
The lead battery was a groundbreaking invention that was later improved on by another French scientist named Camille Alphonse Faure. Faure devised a way to coat the lead plates to boost the capacity of the lead-acid batteries, consequently making the electrical vehicle more appealing. So appealing that the William Morris Company began a successful stint in the 1890s manufacturing electric carriages such as the Morrison Electric, Morrison Electric Six Passenger Surrey and the Morrison Sturgis Electric Four Passenger. In addition to the William Morrison Company, manufacturers such as Pope Manufacturing , Anderson Electric Car Company and others entered the promising electric automotive business.
Electrics were now hitting their stride. So much so that in 1897 New York City used electric cars as taxis. The automotive landscape now included electrics. Around the turn of the century (1900), 28% of cars were electric in the United States.
Then Henry Ford unleashed his vision onto the world and the Model T muddied the automotive market pool. The second blow to the electric auto industry came when Charles Kettering, a founder of Delco, General Motors head of research, pioneering refrigerant inventor, military engineer, coating engineer with DuPont and all around mechanical whiz, invented a useful starter for gasoline engines in 1912. For many, the dangerous inconvenience of cranking over the T by hand was now a nuisance of the past; this aided sales.
Gas-powered engines became top dog in the automotive world, and for the most part have retained their title until today. Along the way there have been notable strides to bring electrics back into the conversation.
In the 1960s, the thought of electric vehicles began to pick up steam with concerns about the environmental impact of gas-powered vehicles. The 1970s oil embargo by OPEC also made the idea of electrics more enticing. General Motors even took heed and toyed with making hybrids. In 1972, GM contracted Victor Wauk to devise a gas/electric hybrid full-sized car. The result was the first American practical hybrid made out of a 1972 Buick Skylark. It was powered by a Mazda rotary engine coupled with an electric motor. The technology was promising, yet ultimately General Motors pulled the plug on the program.
The U.S. government has always seemed conflicted about electric vehicles. In 1976, Congress penned the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act that was aimed at advancing battery and electric car technology. In 1990 the California Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate was drafted in hopes that California would have 2% of their vehicles with zero emissions by 1998 and 10% by 2010. Conversely, in 2002 General Motors and Chrysler sued the California Air research Board (C.A.R.B.) to repeal the mandate on the grounds that the mandate dictated they would eventually be forced to manufacture a progressive percentage of their fleet as Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV). The automotive manufacturers believed the timeframe was unrealistic; the Bush administration agreed as they joined in on the lawsuit. Still, there have been tax rebates offered to those who purchased qualifying hybrid and electric vehicles. The U.S. government has had a rocky and complicated relationship with electric vehicles throughout the years.
We are on the cusp of 2018 and the electric automobile once again is being looked to as the answer. Manufacturers have been innovating and fine tuning the internal combustion engine, making incredible power, reliability and efficiency, but with increasing emissions standards and geo-political issues have made it increasingly difficult to paint a rosy picture for the internal combustion engine. Gasoline literally and figuratively is quite a volatile subject these days.
As classic car owners and fanatics we want to hold onto what we know and love. I do not think the change will take place as fast as many championing the all-electric initiative would tell you, but it is easy to see the writing on the wall. Recent rumblings from China point to that country going 100% electric in the near future. Whether that comes to fruition or not it speaks loudly about where we are going. Even horsepower legends are making the progression towards electric. “Big Daddy” Don Garlitts is now drag racing an all-electric dragster and flirting with 200 mph. Innovation truly is a byproduct of necessity.
I don’t own a crystal ball, but I would bet that electrics will be a large part of the future. A car is still a car regardless of what is powering it. It would take awhile to get past the lack of an exhaust tone, but the instant torque and fewer parts that can break might make the transition a little easier. Like I said, “what’s old is new again.”