An electric car buzzes along the road of a downtown street, with pedestrians and fellow drivers alike stopping to stare at the wealthy owners inside. The car costs roughly 7 times more than a normal Ford, and its reputation and design has helped to fuel long wait lists and pent-up demand.
The scene could be straight out of Silicon Valley in 2013, but it’s not. For a brief period in the early 20th century in the United States, the electric car was high society’s hottest commodity, sought after by socialites and businessmen alike.
Electric cars might seem like the vehicles of the future, but they are actually a status symbol of the past.
The rise of early electric cars
During the early years of the “Automotive Age,”—from about 1896 to 1930—as many as 1,800 different car manufacturers functioned in the U.S. While innovators in Europe had been working on battery-powered vehicles since the 1830s, the first successful electric car in the U.S. made its debut in 1890 thanks to a chemist from Iowa. His six-passenger was basically an electrified wagon that hit a top speed of 14 mph.
By 1900, electric cars were so popular that New York City had a fleet of electric taxis, and electric cars accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road. People liked them because in many ways early electric cars outperformed their gas competitors. Electric cars didn’t have the smell, noise, or vibration found in steam or gasoline cars. They were easier to operate, lacked a manual crank to start, and didn’t require the same difficult-to-change gear system as gas cars.
Electric cars became extremely popular in cities, especially with upper-class women who disliked the noisy and smelly attributes of gasoline-powered cars. A New York Times article from 1911 reported, “The designers of electric passenger car-carrying vehicles have made great advances in the past few years, and these machines have retained all their early popularity and are steadily growing in favor with both men and women.”
It goes on, even the “best known and most prominent makers of gasoline cars in this country use electrics for driving between their homes and their offices.”
Like today, one of the challenges for early electric car owners was where to charge them. But by 1910 owners could install their own charging stations on their property, and an increasing number of car-repair shops popped up that allowed electric cars to charge overnight.
One of the most eccentric and interesting manufacturers of early electric cars was Oliver P. Fritchle, a chemist and electrical engineer who began as an auto repairman until he realized he could build a better electric car himself. Fritchle sold his first vehicle in 1906 and set up a production plant in Denver, Colorado, in 1908.
Fritchle made one of the best car batteries in the business, which he claimed could travel 100 miles on a single charge. He challenged other manufacturers to match his range, and set out on a publicity stunt in 1908 from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City in a two-seat Fritchle Victoria model that sold for $2,000.
The trip took him 20 days of driving and Fritchle drove the 1,800 mile journey over rough and nonexistent roads with only one flat tire, charging at electric central stations or electric garages as night. After the nationally publicized trip, he and his car returned to Denver by train, triumphant.
Fritchle marketed his cars as the “100-mile Fritchle,” and promised delivery 10 days after an order was placed. In Denver and the American West, his high-ceilinged cars reigned supreme with celebrities like Molly Brown driving around town in Fritchles. He was so successful that Fritchle even opened a sales office on Fifth Avenue in New York City, catering to the city’s affluent.
Why early electric cars declined
The production of electric cars peaked in 1912. Fritchle, for example, built about 198 vehicles per year between 1909 and 1914. And while at the turn of the century electric cars had made up a good proportion of the market, advances in gasoline-powered vehicles meant that electric cars owned a smaller and smaller market share as time went on.
When Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced and gas-powered Model T in 1908, it symbolized a death blow to the electric car. By 1912, a gasoline car cost only $650 while the average electric roadster sold for $1,750. In 1912 Charles Kettering also invented the first electric automobile starer. Effectively eliminating the hand crank, Kettering’s invention made the gas-powered auto even more attractive to the same drivers who had preferred electric cars.
Despite Fritchle’s impressive trek across the country in his electric car, most people in the early twentieth century were not so adventurous. As the U.S. developed a better system of roads after the First World War, drivers wanted longer-range vehicles that could go the distance. The discovery of Texas crude oil also reduced the price of gasoline, making both car ownership and car maintenance more affordable to the average consumer.
By 1935, electric cars had all but disappeared from the road.
It would take decades—and the persistent oil crises of the 1970s—before interest in electric cars once again fueled new technologies. In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act to support research and development in electric and hybrid vehicles. But even the electric cars of the 1970s still lagged behind their predecessors; many topped out at 45 miles per hour and some could only drive 40 miles—60 miles less than the 100-mile Fritchle—before needing to be recharged.
Today, it’s normal to see a Prius pull up at a signal, and the biggest electric car companies are once again household names. Whether Tesla is debuting game-changing solar roof tiles, expanding the production capacity of its electric cars, or doubling its charging network with the rollout of the Model 3, electric cars are big business.
But in our rush to embrace this new wave of electric vehicles, it’s easy to forget that today’s cars have their origins in the luxurious, top-dollar designs of the early 20th century. Electric cars might once again be mainstream, but it’s been a long road to get here.
Interested in learning more about the Fritchle electric car? Head to the History Colorado Center in Denver to see one on display.