The Electric Car: Timeless American Classic

1 comment August 10th, 2007at 05:41pm Posted by Eli

It was news to me, but the electric car has actually been around almost as long as, well, the car.

THE new hybrid Ford Escape taxis scuttling around New York City give their occupants an aura of environmental superiority. But as far as clean electric-powered cars are concerned, these high-mileage hybrids are actually a bit behind the times.

About 100 years behind.

Starting in 1914, the Detroit Taxicab and Transfer Company built and operated a fleet of nearly 100 electric cabs. Customers would often wait for a smoother, cleaner, more tasteful electric cab, even when a gas-powered cab was already on station.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

In an era in which gasoline-powered automobiles were noisy, smelly, greasy and problematic to start, electric cars, like Jay Leno’s restored 1909 Baker Electric Coupe, represented a form of women’s liberation. Well-dressed society women could simply drive to lunch, to shop, or to visit friends without fear of soiling their gloves, mussing their hair or setting their dresses on fire.

“These were women’s shopping cars,” said Mr. Leno, who is a serious hands-on collector of autos and motorcycles dating from the 1800s to the present. “There was no gas or oil, no fire, no explosions — you just sort of got in and you went. There were thousands of these in New York, from about 1905 to 1915. There were charging stations all over town, so ladies could recharge their cars while they were in the stores.”


“I drive it from the garage up into the Hollywood Hills every year to see the Christmas lights,” he said. “The deer come right up to it and look inside. Because there’s no noise, no vibration, no gasoline smell, they’re completely unafraid.

“It’ll go for about four or five hours on a single charge, at about 20 to 25 miles an hour. Its range is about 110 miles, just about what most electric cars made these days will do. So we really haven’t come very far in a hundred years.

“It’s pretty fun to drive, actually — if you’re not in a hurry, that is,” he said. “Women love it.”

The whole “shopping car for the fine ladies” bit seems a little over the top, but it really is amazing.

And I had no idea. There were electric cars with respectable range, and this whole support system of charging stations, and not only did it all just… go away, but it’s like it was erased from history, too. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that maybe there was something problematic with the idea of electric cars as a perfectly mainstream, unremarkable technology. (On the other hand, what better way to smear the electric car than to depict it as a failed and obsolete technology?)

Or am I the only person who didn’t know we had electric cars 100 years ago? Maybe I need to watch Who Killed The Electric Car – I had always assumed that it was smothered in its crib, not airbrushed out of existence like one of Stalin’s ex-friends.

(Also, be sure to check out the slide show of Leno’s electric car – it’s quite posh)

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Environment,Technology

1 Comment

  • 1. Tony Belding  |  August 11th, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    The electric cars of 100 years ago were what we today would call NEVs — Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, with limited range and speed. NEVs are far from dead, in fact I read that about 70,000 of them are in use today across the country. A lot of companies are making and selling them, and apparently doing brisk business.

Contact Eli



Most Recent Posts




August 2007
« Jul   Sep »

Thinking Blogger

Pittsburgh Webloggers

Site Meter

View My Stats *