The history of the electric motor car race
It might be shocking to consider that some of the earliest electric cars weighed in at 4,250 pounds and could travel 50 to 100 miles on a single battery charge.
Not bad, but add the fact the vehicle could travel 33 percent faster than the standard travel of the day and you start to wonder how you can get a hold of that technology.
If you consider the motor car, the Electrobat, debuted in August 1894 - you might be even more surprised.
The Electrobat was built in Philadelphia by Henry Morris, a mechanical engineer and Pedro Salom, an electrician.
They tested the original vehicle over hundreds of miles of boulevards in the city and with the first model a success, immediately began to improve on their designs.
In just a few years they created the Electrobat 2, 3 and 4 models which shed weight to less than a third of the original model and could exceed 25 mph when wagons of the day traveled about 10 mph.
They were also one of the first automobiles to ever use pneumatic tires.
The 1894 Electrobat is considered the first production electric motor car in America
Earlier inventors demonstrated electric prototypes as early as 1837.
In 1891, the first American four-wheeled electric vehicle was built by William Morrison in Iowa.
Morrison’s electric vehicle could carry 12 people, go 14 mph and operate for 13 hours on a single charge.
Morrison never mass produced his vehicle, unfortunately.
Most electric cars of these early days suffered the same consternation as today; the lack of engine torque and battery life.
In fact, the Electrobat didn’t finish most of the races it entered.
If it rained, the roads became muddy and friction caused by the mud drained the battery. Yet, even not finishing it impressed the judges in key motor car races and won awards.
One important 1894 New York City race featured competing motor car manufactures that also competed with their propulsion systems.
The energy sources for the NYC race cars included steam, springs, oil as precursor to diesel, gasolene (as it was spelled in 1894), naphtha and kerosene.
Just imagine the racing field; steering of the vehicles was controlled by levers not a steering wheel, some motor cars used the back wheels to steer, others using the front, forward or reverse movement was controlled by another set of levers and mufflers and brakes were in process of invention.
Braking pretty much depended upon the engine no longer propelling the vehicle and sometimes used pulleys connected to the engine to stop.
Stopping a horseless vehicle motor car was an art, with many claims stating that when traveling at 12 mph stopping could be accomplished in the distance of a few feet.
Outcomes from many of these notable races in the late 1890s quickly demonstrated that gasoline or electric powered vehicles would dominate the growth of American motor cars.
Determining which power source was going to drive American motor cars into the future is still being determined.
Gasoline has always led the race but it’s interesting to note that in 1900, over 100 years ago, 38 percent of new American automobiles ran on batteries, and over a third of all vehicles on the road before World War I were electrically powered.
What happened? Did electric motor cars just loose the race?
After the Detroit Electric Car Company closed in 1940 with the death of its president, interest in electric cars all but stopped until the wake of the oil shocks of the 1970s and once again in 2006.
Some major carmakers have targeted commercial production of new electrics to start in 2010.
European companies have been energetic about producing electric cars for decades, and around the globe hybrids have become a real purchase consideration. Check out the electric car guide at https://www.edmunds.com/electric-car/ .
The electric verses gasoline user race has gone on for over a century.
Gasoline has been the clear leader, but the leader’s rearview mirror isn’t as clear as it once was.
It’s safe to say that electric cars don’t have the predominance they enjoyed a hundred years ago, but they are beginning to create a buzz in the marketplace again.
John Cilio is a freelance writer, transportation historian and member of the Connecticut Lost Squadron Veterans Group. He lives in Sherman.