A brief history of the electric car

Jamais Contente electric car 1899 Inexhibit

A reproduction of the 1899 “Jamais Contente” electric car in the MAUTO Automobile Museum of Turin; photo © Riccardo Bianchini / Inexhibit.

A brief history of the electric car
We, humans, have a short memory from time to time, and sometimes things we deem very new can turn out to be much older than we think.
This also applies to the protagonist of the next revolution in transports: the electric car.
It seems normal today to consider a Tesla Model Y or a Porsche Taycan as the vanguards of a new era that will bury the dying age of the internal combustion engine forever, but perhaps we should look at things differently.
Not because the age of combustion engine cars is going to last forever, but because electric cars actually preceded piston engine ones. In fact, if the first practical car with an internal combustion engine is that built by Carl Benz in 1885, the first electric car was presented by French engineer Gustave Trouvé four years earlier. It looks like we are witnessing the return of an ancestor rather than the birth of an infant.

To better illustrate this finding, we have prepared a brief history of the electric car starting with the first one, the legendary tricycle created by Trouvé in 1881.

Gustave Trouvé trycicle – France, 1881
Widely considered the first practical electric car in history, the vehicle was built by Gustave Trouvé by fitting an electric motor into a tricycle produced by British engineer James Starley; the car was also equipped with a pack of lead-acid batteries placed in a box just behind the driver’s seat.

Weight: unknown
Max power: unknown
Top speed: unknown
Range: unknown

Gustave Trouvé electric tricycle, 1881

An etching depicting Gustave Trouvé’s electric tricycle; image © Manz Archive.

Jamais Contente – France, 1899
A single-seater car with a peculiar torpedo shape, the Jamais Contente (Never Satisfied), built in France by the Belgian Camille Jénatzy in 1899, was the first car (of all types, not just electric) to go over 100 km/h. Made of wood, steel, and aluminum alloy, with a total weight of 1450 kg half of which of batteries, the car was powered by two 25 kW – 200V electric motors that pushed it to a top speed of 106 km/h.

Weight: 1,450 kg – 3,197 bs
Max power: 50 kW
Top speed: 106 km/h – 66 mph
Range: unknown

Jamais Contente electric car 1899

The Jamais Contente, photo courtesy of Musée national de la Voiture et du Tourisme – Chateau de Compiègne.

Jamais Contente electric car 1899 Camille Jénatzy

Camille Jénatzy driving the Jamais Contente in 1899.

Studebaker Electric – USA, 1902
Studebaker Electric
was a battery-powered electric car, manufactured by Studebaker Brothers between 1902 and 1911. Produced with various bodies, the vehicle was powered by an 8-volt Westinghouse motor and reached a top speed of 34 km/h.

Weight: various, depending on the body model
Max power: unknown
Top speed: 34 km/h – 21 mph
Range: 112 km – 70 mi

Studebaker Electric car, 1902

A reproduction of a 1902 wagon-body Studebaker Electric; image courtesy of classicautomall.com.

Studebaker Electric advertisement

L’oeuf électrique – France, 1942
The Oeuf électrique (Electric egg) was a compact car built by French designer Paul Arzens in the early-1940s. Made of aluminum and acrylic glass, this futuristic two-seat balloon-shaped vehicle was powered by an electric motor with five12 volts/250 Ah batteries and reached a top speed of 70 km/h with a range of 100 kilometers.

Weight: 350 kg – 771 lbs
Max Power: ca. 6 kW (estimated)
Top speed: 70 km/h – 43 mph
Range: 100 km – 62 mi

Oef Electrique electric car by Paul Arzens, 1942

The Oeuf électrique, photo © Musée des arts et métiers / C. Compan.

Peugeot VLV – France, 1942
Roughly in the same years in which Paul Arzens was creating its Oeuf électrique, French car manufacturer Peugeot was developing another electric city car. Named VLV (Voiture Légère de Ville), it had four wheels but the rear ones were so close that the car looked like a reverse tricycle. Powered by four 12V batteries, the VLV could reach a top speed of 36 km/h; only 377 VLVs were sold before Peugeot stopped manufacturing the car in 1945.

Weight: 350 kg – 771 lbs
Max power: 3,9 kW (82A x 48V)
Top Speed: 36 km/h – 22 mph
Range: 80 km – 50 mi

Peugeot VLV electric car, 1942

Peugeot VLV electric car, 1942 interior

The VLV, photos courtesy of Peugeot.

Panda Elettra – Italy, 1990
Presented in 1990 by Fiat in collaboration with Steyr-Puch, the Panda Elettra was the first electric car produced in numbers by a major manufacturer. The Elettra was powered by a 9.2 kW DC electric motor (later upgraded to 17.7 kW) and twelve 6V lead-acid batteries (which replaced the rear seats of the petrol version) and it reached a top speed of 70 km/h with a range of 100 km. It was an ideal city car, well ahead of its time. Perhaps too ahead; in fact, the then prohibitive price of 25,600,000 lire (over 30,000 in today’s dollars; at the time, the Panda Elettra cost more than a BMW 316i) undermined its diffusion and success.

Weight: 1,220 kg – 2,690 lbs
Max power: 17.7 kW
Top speed: 0 km/h – 43 mph
Range: 100 km – 62 mi

Fiat Panda Elettra electric car, 1990

Fiat Panda Elettra cutout

The Fiat Panda Elettra, images courtesy of FCA – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

General Motors EV1 / Impact – USA, 1996
A response to the 1990 California zero-emission vehicle mandate, the General Motors EV1 was in many ways the precursor of modern electric cars. Based on the Impact concept vehicle, the EV1 was a pretty impressive electric car for the time. Under a futuristic and body with a drag coefficient of 0.19, If featured a lightweight aluminum chassis, a three-phase Alternating current Induction motor, and 32 lead-acid batteries, later replaced with NiMH ones; also the digital cockpit was quite futuristic for the 1990s.
Unfortunately, GM failed to make the car profitable and stopped manufacturing it in 1999. Furthermore, most of the cars already made were retired by the company (they were available only through a lease agreement) and crushed.

Weight: 1,360 kg – 2,998 lbs
Max power: 102 kW
Top speed: 130 km/h – 80 mph (limited)
Range: 89-169 km – 55-105 mi (depending on the battery type)

General Motors EV1, electric car, 1996

The only original General Motors EV1 still existing, photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

General Motors EV1, electric car, 1996, interior

The interior of the GE EV1, photo General Motors Company.

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