electric cars are older than gasoline-powered cars: 7 facts about the history of the e-car

General Motors inspired Elon Musk to create Tesla, and the first e-Golf existed back in 1976: seven curious facts about electric cars you didn’t know yet

Professional photo Elias Holdenried

BMW equipped two examples of the 02 series with electric motors and used them in the 1972 Olympic Games

Electric cars are often presented as a technical innovation. But its history goes back to the 19th century. Back to the twentieth century. Around 1900, they were even more successful than vehicles with gasoline engines.

From the 1920s, however, demand fell sharply and the drive type almost died out. For decades, prototypes and small-series models have been the highest of emotions.

From the 1990s onward, environmental awareness grew among people and, to some extent, also among politicians. Since then, manufacturers have been devoting more attention to the topic. Tesla has finally helped the drive to make a comeback.

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Within the automotive industry, all the signs are now pointing to electric vehicles. In view of climate change and the resulting public and political pressure, more and more carmakers are making the switch. Gasoline and diesel, which dominated for decades, are becoming less and less important, while manufacturers have almost unanimously agreed that they will drive battery-electric into the future.

Today, the virtually silent electric drive is often regarded as a new technology and is promoted as such by the brands. In the media, Tesla mostly takes credit for the triumph of the electric vehicle (EV). It may be the first to offer a range suitable for long distances, and when it comes to acceleration, it can outrun even cars with high-volume gasoline engines. Nevertheless, they are not a new invention. Below are seven facts worth knowing about e-cars that show their history began much earlier.

1. Electric vehicles have been around longer than gasoline engines

Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz are today considered the inventors of the car. But this only applies to four-wheeled vehicles with gasoline engines. Steam and electric cars were around well before 1886. While the former were already in the 19. While electric cars chugged across the countryside in the nineteenth century, the first vehicle powered by electricity was put on its wheels as early as 1839 by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson.

German engineers also took up the technology early on. In 1888, the “Flocken electric car” was built in the Upper Franconian town of Coburg. It was the first electric vehicle with four wheels, reached a top speed of 15 km/h and can be described as the forefather of all new electric vehicles.

2. The first “Porsche” was purely electric

Ferdinand Porsche is usually associated with the VW Beetle he developed or the sports car company of the same name that he founded after World War II. Both the Volkswagen and the later 356 and 911 sports coupes are known for their distinctive-sounding boxer engines.

In the early days of his career, however, the Czech-Austrian engineer had devoted himself above all to e-mobility. In 1896, for example, he invented the electric wheel hub motor – a patented technology that is still widely used today. Three years later, he joined the Lohner-Werke in Vienna, where he developed his first electric car. In 1902, he developed the world’s first hybrid drive for the company. The latter only celebrated its breakthrough over a hundred years later.

3. An electric car breaks the 100 km/h mark for the first time

In the early days of the automobile, the electric drive was in part superior to the internal combustion engine, as was demonstrated by several record-breaking runs. In 1898, Belgian racing driver Camille Jenatzy developed “La Jamais Contente” (The Never Satisfied), a torpedo-shaped single-seater that was exceptionally aerodynamic for its time. Propulsion was provided by two 25-kW electric motors, each powered by a lead battery.

On 29. April 1899, the bizarre-looking vehicle reached a top speed of 105.882 km/h on a track near Paris. The “La Jamais Contente” thus went down in history as the first car to reach speeds of over 100 km/h. Around two years later, the world record was taken back from him by a steam car called an “Easter egg”.

4. By 1900, there were more e-cars than gasoline-powered cars in the U.S

Electric cars were anything but a fringe phenomenon at the beginning of the last century. They were particularly popular in the USA. In 1900, there were about 34.000 units were on the road, which corresponded to a total share of 38 percent. By today’s standards, the total number of electric vehicles at the time may be tiny, but at the time the automobile as a whole was still in its infancy and barely widespread.

By comparison, steam cars dominated at the time with a share of 40 percent, while gasoline-powered cars only made it to 22 percent. In the country’s metropolises, the E share was even higher in some cases, as the small range of around 100 kilometers did not matter so much in inner-city traffic.

In 1912, U.S. electric car production reached a record high of nearly 34.000 new vehicles peaks for the time being. From the 1920s onwards, this type of drive disappeared almost completely for decades. There were many reasons for this. On the one hand, the quiet, simply built and playfully easy-to-operate e-cars had an image problem. People wanted models that represented pure adventure and at the same time thrilled them with their mechanics and sound.

Added to this was the short range, which made the electric car almost completely unusable, especially in rural areas. The introduction of the electric starter made manual cranking obsolete, thus making cars with internal combustion engines much more practical and convenient. Ford’s Model T, the first million-seller in automobile history, finally made the gasoline-powered passenger car affordable and suitable for the masses.

5. BMW electrified the 1972 Olympics

In the period between the decline of e-mobility and its comeback in the new millennium, only a few manufacturers addressed the issue. And most of the time they left it at experimental vehicles, which were never intended for large-scale production anyway. This was also the situation at BMW when they began equipping two BMW 1602s with an electric motor and Varta batteries at the end of the 1960s. The two silent members of the “New Class” were not only tested on a shielded company site, however, but were used in a high-profile way at the 1972 Summer Olympics.

BMW’s 32 kW electric sedans served as shuttles for officials and as camera and support vehicles during marathons. However, the cars were not released to the clientele, which is hardly surprising given their lackluster performance and short range. Since their battery packs weighed 350 kilos each, the prototypes could only reach a top speed of 100 km/h, while they ran out of juice after 60 kilometers at the latest.

6. There was already a VW E-Golf 40 years ago

Under the leadership of CEO Herbert Diess, VW is really stepping on the gas in terms of electrification. The Austrian wants not only to expand the all-electric ID model family, but in the long term to overtake Tesla and make Volkswagen the world’s largest e-car maker. Things got serious for the first time with the electric version of the previous Golf generation.

But even the original Golf was already available with an electric drive system. As early as 1976, two years after the introduction of the new series, the carmaker replaced the 75 hp four-cylinder engine in some examples with an electric motor. The reason for the research project was that the first oil crisis had shown manufacturers that they might have to look for alternatives.

Over the next five years, VW continued to develop the E-Golf. In 1981, a small-series model, the CitySTROMer, was realized on the same basis. The 25 cars used in a field test got about 60 kilometers on one battery charge. In 1985, VW launched a second generation based on the Golf two, which adopted the technology of its predecessor. This time, however, 70 cars were produced, which were mainly used by energy providers for customer service. Renault also built small-series electric vehicles in the seventies. The French retooled the R5 small car.

The CitySTROMer was the first VW electric passenger car. In 1972, the Wolfsburg-based company had already converted a VW bus into an electric car

7. General Motors moved Elon Musk to build e-cars

The U.S. state of California introduced a law in the early 1990s aimed at increasing the share of zero-emission cars. The major U.S. corporations then found themselves under pressure and had to reluctantly devote themselves to the development of e-cars. General Motors introduced the almost alien-looking aerodynamic world champion EV1 in 1996. The two-seater was not offered for sale, but only leased by the GM subsidiary to 800 select customers. In total, within three years, 1.117 units produced.

The EV1 had an electric motor on each of the front wheels. Together, they accelerated the 1.3-ton vehicle to a limited 129 km/h. Early models had a range of around 110 kilometers, while the beta version delivered in 1999 managed 225 kilometers. The U.S. company wanted to avoid having to build up a spare parts supply for the internally unloved model and had almost all of the examples scrapped after the three-year leasing period expired. Fans of the model protested against it and Elon Musk was also enraged by the action. He later told journalists that big corporations had purposefully tried to kill the electric car. This is what motivated him to set up his own e-car production facility.

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