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Electric cars in history

If you think electric cars are an invention of the 21st Century, think again!

Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

If you think electric cars are an invention of the 21st Century, think again: their popularity now is rivalled by their fame in the first decennia of the 20th Century. Read about the rise and fall of the electric car in a time where Tesla was still preceded by the word Nikola.

The story of the automobile began long before the 1900s, when motorized vehicles became a novelty much coveted by the wealthy, the sporty and the powerful. With the start of the 20th century, the commercial breakthrough of the car was dawning as well. The electric car, in particular, proved to be a hit with the consumer market: other than gasoline and steam-powered cars, the electric versions were silent, practical, and excellent in terms of performance.

These qualities were aptly demonstrated by the car developed by Camille Jenatzy. His automobile nicknamed ‘La Jamais Contente’ (The Never Contented) not only won a competition against other car types in its performance while driving uphill, but also became the first car ever to reach a speed of 100 kilometres per hour.

Electric cars didn’t become ubiquitous straight away because of the lack of charging infrastructure; but when a growing number of private houses got connected to the electric grid in the 1910s, its heyday seemed to have arrived. Unfortunately, the lack of good performance over longer distances, the amount of time required for charging, and the invention of the self-starter for internal-combustion engine cars put a stop to its rise to fame.

The temporary setback didn’t keep inventors from pondering on the potential of electricity-driven motorized vehicles. A remarkable venture was that of French industrial designer Paul Arzens. Gaining international recognition with his locomotives for the French national railways, Arzens' early career was devoted to car design and engineering.

L’oeuf éléctrique (‘the electric egg’) of French car designer Paul Arzens, 1968
INA. In copyright

One of Arzens’ masterpieces was the egg-shaped electric car nicknamed ‘l’Oeuff’. Developed during World War II, the plexiglas-topped vehicle was equipped with heavy batteries, allowing it to drive a distance of 100 kilometres at a speed of 70km/h.

While temporarily gaining traction in wartime, when fuel was scarce, in later decades electric cars mainly remained in use as small, professional vehicles - such as bakery or dairy vans.

The history of the electric car isn’t completely void of postwar triumphs, though. In 1971 the Moon buggy, or first manned vehicle to drive on the lunar surface, operated on electricity.

Yet it would not be before the end of the century with its oil crises and growing concerns over environmental issues that the interest in electric cars would mount again and lead to revolutionary new developments.

By the time the first electric roadster developed by Tesla Motors took to the highway, the new millennium had arrived. In its wake followed a plethora of all-electric and hybrid models that from the 2010s onwards carved a substantial part out of the market.

Better performance, more daring designs, increased environmental concerns and an expansion of charging infrastructures have made electric cars more appealing to car enthusiasts and pragmatic shoppers alike. The next decades will demonstrate whether or not their rise to glory will finally result in victory.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

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