The History of the Electric Vehicle {{favouriteCount}} Quantity of Likes

2 Aug 2015

With EV’s becoming ever more popular we take a look at the history of battery powered vehicles…

Today we are in a golden age of technological advancement, where we can finally say that the electric vehicle (EV) is finally starting to become popular in the western world. But it hasn’t always been that way. We take a look at the history of the EV and find out whether they can ever truly replace fossil fuel-burning vehicles.

1890 – 1910 – the EV’s heyday

Thomas Parker EV

English inventor Thomas Parker, who was responsible for innovations such as electrifying the London Underground and the overhead tramways in Liverpool, built the first production electric car in London in 1884, using his own specially designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries. It was crude, slow and had a poor range but this was the first car that would start it all. What followed was definitely considered the heyday, with the next 15-20 years seeing a huge take-up in EV sales in Europe and the U.S., in fact with a third of all cars on the road being EVs.

Acceptance of electric cars was initially hampered by a lack of power infrastructure, but by 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars. They were suited to city life very well as they had a small range of 30-40 miles and couldn’t exceed 15mph.

1920’s – the decline

There were three things that halted the growth of the EV in the 1920’s though. The first was the improvement in roads – until this point only the roads in the cities were smooth and prepared, but now these smooth roads stretched between cities. That made the limited range of the EV a serious problem as the wealthy people who could afford an automobile wanted to be mobile and visit other places. Secondly massive reserves of oil had been found world over and the production of gasoline was very rapidly becoming the norm, which leads onto the third issue which came in the form of the Ford Model T. The Model T made long range gasoline powered transportation available to the masses at a lower price than ever before and by 1930 less than a quarter of cars were EVs.

1920-1990 – the baron wasteland of EV development

Enfield 8000

Okay, that statement might be a little overly dramatic, but the EV almost died out completely by the mid-1950s. This was mainly due to the war and the fact that all efforts went into making the internal combustion engine (ICE) better, more powerful, more reliable etc. for the machines of war.

In the 1960s there was a light resurgence as the world looked to be more eco-friendly, especially in the U.S. where there were a few EVs put into production in limited numbers. The Enfield 8000 was a small EV made for city use while there were a few other concepts rolled out. The biggest EV news in history happened in 1971 though when the first vehicle to drive on the moon was an EV – the Boeing Moon Buggy. The three Moon Buggies were used for their missions and are now parked on the moon stationary, probably thanks to a lack of charging infrastructure.

1990’s – the revival of interest


The late 1970s/early 1980s saw the world plunged into an energy crisis that was the catalyst that EVs needed to be thrust into the limelight again. By the 1990’s there was an EV being developed by most of the major manufacturers including the Chrysler TEVan, Ford Range EV pickup, Honda EV Plus hatchback and Toyota RAV4 EV. These were mostly converted ICE cars though, so were always compromised. The GM EV1 in 1996 was the first mass-produced and purpose-designed electric vehicle of the modern era from a major car manufacturer and really set the bar. It pioneered the use of aerodynamics and low weight to increase range, with the body frame made from aluminium and plastic body panels sculpted in a wind tunnel so that the low, 2-door coupe body had a drag coefficient of Cd 0.19. To compare, a mid-90’s BMW 3-Series coupe had a Cd of 0.33. The Gen II cars had a curb weight of 8D15D9A9-D08E-44E5-AD99-7AE2B73703BEkg and a range of 160 miles. Sadly in 2002 GM decided to remove all the EV1’s from the road and cancel the program. There were many reasons given for this, citing battery costs, lack of support, repair costs etc. but the most commonly thought reason is pressure from U.S. oil companies. It is well known that they support, finance and publically back most of the U.S. car manufacturers and they didn’t like the fact that the EV1 was a viable alternative to the ICE. It’s well documented in the 2006 documentary – Who Killed the Electric Car? – well worth a watch.

2000’s to present – the golden age

BMW i3

The global recession of the late 2000’s pushed forward the development of the EV and we now have more choice than ever before. The rise of the hybrid happened earlier, with the Toyota Prius pushing partial electric power into the limelight in 1997, with over 5 million sold since then, but hybrids are only a halfway solution – we want to know about EVs.

2006 saw the introduction of the Tesla Roadster, a small sporty EV based on the Lotus Elise and the car that started the Tesla empire, more on which later. 2009 saw the Mitsubishi i-Miev EV and in 2010 the Nissan Leaf was launched, which was the first full EV hatchback to be produced by a major manufacturer and sold worldwide. The Leaf is still on sale now and represents the most popular full EV to date.

Currently on sale there are a huge number of full EVs, the most significant being the BMW i3 and the Tesla Model S. The i3 is a major milestone in EV production as it was the first ‘premium’ EV on the market (it may be an EV but it still ‘feels’ like a BMW) and the internal structure and most of the bodywork is made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) meaning it is much lighter and has a better range – in this case around 120 miles with very good performance. At the other end of the scale is the Tesla Model S, a large luxury car with (in the top model) exceptional performance and range. The latest P90D uses a 90kW dual motor setup (255bhp front, 496bhp rear) to produce an incredible total of 751bhp which means in ‘Ludicrous Mode’ (yes, that’s what it’s really called) it does 0-62mph in 2.8 seconds – the same as a Bugatti Veyron. Add in the fact that it has a range of over 300 miles and you have the first EV that could genuinely replace an ICE in someone’s life. Expect a review of the P90D coming soon!

Model S

One of the biggest hindrances to EV take-up so far has been the lack of a suitable charging infrastructure, though thankfully this is being addressed by companies like POD Point. They expect to see an EV charging point everywhere that someone stops for more than half an hour by 2018 – that’s an incredible 100,000 more points across the UK – which means that you will top up your EV whenever it’s stopped.