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The History of the Electric Car
Wednesday July 22nd 2009, 4:20 am

With global oil supplies running low, and an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of burning petrol in cars, manufacturers are increasingly looking to alternatives to the internal combustion engine such as electric and hybrid drive systems. However, did you know that electric cars actually pre date their petrol equivalents?

While the first motorised carriages were powered by steam, it was not long before electric motors, which were quieter and ran smoother than their steam equivalents, became the most popular way of powering what were then termed ‘horseless carriages’. The first crude electric carriage was invented sometime between 1832 an 1839, although it was a few decades before they were developed into commercial products.

The most popular type of electric car in the early part of the 20th century was called the Detroit Electric Coupe, which could cruise comfortably at twenty miles an hour and was capable of travelling 80 miles on a single charge. At the beginning of the century, electric cars were by far the most popular type.

However, this was all set to change with the introduction of the mass produced Model T Ford in 1907, which featured an internal combustion engine. The Model T was half the price of even the least expensive electric car, could travel a lot further, and could go a lot faster. This effectively spelled the end for the electric car until the oil crisis of the early 1970s prompted renewed interest in alternatives to the internal combustion engine, with electric motors at the forefront. Models such as the Electraction Tropicana and the Zagato Zele wowed the crowds at motor fairs with their futuristic styling, but the limited capabilities and comparatively high cost of these vehicles meant that they never really caught on with the public at large.

However, car manufacturers, undeterred by the commercial failure of these earlier models, continued to develop electric cars in the 80s and 90s such as the Citroen Citela, the Fiat Downtown, and the Peugeot 106 Electric. This new breed of electric cars could boast top speeds of over 70mph and ranges of well over a hundred miles between full charges. However, attempts to set up a large network of charging stations foundered due to a lack of cooperation from the electricity companies, and any success stories were decidedly regional and thus limited in their scope.

The introduction of hybrid drive cars, such as the Toyota Prius and the Lexus RX400h, which combine a combustion engine with an electric engine, saw the dream of a viable electric car become a reality. Soaring fuel prices and government-sponsored tax breaks for owners of green vehicles have seen this type of vehicle soar in popularity. Faster, more energy efficient electric cars such as the G Whiz and the Venturi Fetish have also attracted a large fanbase amongst environmentally conscious city motorists.