For anyone other than history buffs and electric car evangelists, it’s hard to imagine that in the late 19th century, the electric car ruled the road. It was the best-selling car in the US, held the land speed record and had attracted the brightest engineering brains in the world.
One of those figures was Thomas Parker. The British inventor was the man responsible for electrifying the London Underground network, and by 1884 he’d created an electric passenger car in an attempt to address the smoke pollution that blighted Britain’s cities.
The scene sounds familiar. Today, the likes of Elon Musk has led the second charge of the electric car in an attempt to rid the world of its dependency on fossil-fuel burning vehicles.
Between the lives of the two inventors, the electric car has undergone a complete transformation, much as the petrol or diesel-powered car has.
Here are 25 landmark electric cars that have influenced the journey of the breed.
1. Fetch me my, er, battery! Robert Anderson, 1832
In an era when the horse-drawn carriage was the height of sophistication on Britain’s roads, Robert Anderson experimented with an electrically propelled carriage that meant the horses could be left in the stables and the streets would be plastered with one less heap of poo. Built from around 1832, it used primary cells that would bring a whole new meaning to ‘range anxiety’ today, as they could not be recharged.
2. 1891: William Morrison puts an electric car on US roads
William Morrison, from Des Moines, Iowa, introduces the first successful electric vehicle in the U.S which sparks an interest among motorists. This 1896 advertisement shows how many early electric vehicles were not much different than carriages.
3. 1899: Baker Electric Car
Long before Tesla was a lightbulb moment in Elon Musk’s brain, Baker was producing electric cars in America. In 1899, its first, $850 model was snapped up by the likes of Thomas Edison, the inventor. Equivalent to about $25,000 today, it’s not far off the price of a Tesla Model 3.
4. 1899: Ferdinand Porsche creates the first hybrid
The latest Porsche sports cars and racing cars may feature hybrid technology, but long before the German company was formed Ferdinand Porsche created the P1 - world’s first hybrid, featuring both a petrol engine and battery-powered motor.
5. 1908: Ford Model T
It’s not an electric vehicle (EV) but the Model T, the first mass-produced motor car that’s affordable, has a devastating impact on the development of EVs. Production of electric cars peaks in around 1920.
6. 1914: Henry Ford and Thomas Edison confirm the are developing an electric car together
Prototypes are built, newspapers are briefed, intensive battery development takes place and tooling up for production is discussed, but ultimately the development of a Ford electric car using Edison battery technology would amount to nothing. The proliferation of petrol sees it win the war of convenience for consumers.
7. 1974: Jeep DJ-5E Electruk
It would take a global oil crises and concerns over air pollution to jump-start development of the electric car. In the early ‘70s, American Motors brought out the DJ-5E, a rear-wheel drive electric delivery van, also known as the Electruck. The US Postal Service snapped up more than 350, in an attempt to help tackle poor air quality. It had a range of about 30 miles
8. 1974: Sebring Vanguard Citicar
Until the Tesla Model S came along, the wedge-shaped, two-seat Citicar was America’s best-selling electric car. By the end of its life, more than 4,400 had been built.
9. 1974: Zagato Zele
Zagato, one of the world’s most famous Italian styling houses, had built cars as sought-after as the Aston Martin DB4 GT and Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ2. Then it came out with the Zele – which, as you can see in the video, literally looked like a box on wheels. However, the two-seat electric microcar had some substance to it, offering a driving range of around 50 miles.
10. 1994: Pivco Th!nk City
If you visited the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games, or have watched Lilyhammer on Netflix, you’ll likely have noticed the Th!nk City electric car that nips about the place. Dreamed up by a Norwegian company, some clever engineering went into this two-seat city car – so much so that Ford, one of the world’s largest car companies, took a majority stake. However, the company lurched from one bankruptcy to another, and finally closed its doors in 2011.
11. 1996: General Motors EV1
A favourite with conspiracy theorists, the EV1 ‘voltwagon’ was groundbreaking and widely acclaimed – so why did General Motors kill it off and take back all its leased cars? It came about because the smog-choked state of California declared that US car makers could not sell new cars to its millions of residents unless they had a zero-emission vehicle in showrooms as well.
12. 1997: Honda EV Plus and Toyota RAV4 EV
The RAV 4 was the darling of America’s college kids crowd, so it made sense for Toyota to satisfy Californian zero-emissions legislation and turn its beachcombing SUV into a battery-powered EV. At the same time, Honda’s answer was to create a purpose-built, small electric car that would help it learn lessons about engineering cars of the future. A highlight was its nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery, instead of conventional lead-acid unit.
13. 1997: Toyota Prius
It may not be a pure electric car but arguably the Prius has done more than any other car to open drivers’ minds to new technologies and the concept of a car that can be powered – in part, in the case of the Prius – by an electric motor.
14. 2001: Reva G-Wiz
For the first couple of years of its life, there was little sign of Reva’s G-Wiz on the streets of London. Following the introduction of the Congestion Charge, in 2003, that soon changed, as the electric quadricycle was exempt from the charge and could even be parked for free in some parts of the capital. A series of devastating crash test result soon cost the G-Wiz its sparkle.
15. 2007: Smart Electric Drive (ED)
Nicolas Hayek, the founder of Swatch, the watch company, originally envisaged creating a small, fashionable car that could be easily personalised. After falling out with partner Mercedes, the trendy town car grew up a little, and by 2007 the first of several electric models had reached the road.
16. 2008: Tesla Roadster
At the time of its introduction, the £87,000 Tesla Roadster – famously criticised by BBC Top Gear for its limited driving range - wasn’t taken all that seriously. Yet it was a clear shot over the bow of the world’s biggest car makers that Silicon Valley was ready to take them on in the race to build a new generation of electric car.
17. 2010: Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera
If the Chevrolet Volt had a fault, it was probably that it was too clever for its own good. Ask around, and few people will be able to explain how it worked. It was effectively an electric family car with a driving range of 50 miles, but once the battery charge was depleted a petrol engine acted as a generator, extending its range via a pair of electric motors. Many plug-in hybrid cars would follow in the Volt’s slipstream.
18. 2010: Nissan Leaf
Arguably the first electric car to break into the mainstream, the Leaf was different because it didn’t look like a card designed for Noddy. The five-door family car was affordable to buy (from around £23,000 after the plug-in car grant was deducted) and practical to live with, thanks to a driving range of up to 100 miles. Some were even built in Britain, at Nissan’s factory in Sunderland.
19. 2012: Tesla Model S
Elon Musk’s first serious attempt at an electric car designed from scratch has proved a big success, outselling luxury cars from Audi, BMW and Mercedes in both America and – more recently -Europe. With impressive performance and a range of up to 390 miles, as well as dramatically reduced tax ills and running costs, it’s easy to see why.
20. 2012: Renault Zoe
Pound for pound, the Zoe is the best value for money electric car on the market – better value still if drivers choose a used example. It’s a gimmick-free, practical runaround which makes for an excellent first or second car to replace something like a Fiesta or Clio. An update in 2017 introduced a more powerful battery with improved driving range.
21. 2012/2013: McLaren P1 vs Porsche 918 Spyder
Illustrating the influence of battery-electric technology, the near £1 million McLaren P1 and subsequent Porsche 918 Spyder both featured hybrid powertrains that could be driven on battery power alone, at speeds of up to almost 100mph. Together with Ferrari’s La Ferrari, the supercars were dubbed ‘The Holy Trinity’ and left Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond flabbergasted, after they tested all three for the first episode of The Grand Tour.
22. 2013: BMW i3
Sci-fi fans have the X-Wing starfighter from Star Wars as their screensaver; car geeks have the BMW i3. Arguably the most innovative car on the road, the BMW i3 is a technical tour de force that experiments with new production methods – the factory is powered using sustainable energy – new materials and original design and packaging that is made possible by the car’s flat floor. Light and efficient, it also manages to be fun to drive and look stylish on the driveway.
23. 2013: Volkswagen e-Golf
The Golf is arguably the best car in the world. So when VW’s engineers introduced an electric version, in late 2013, drivers expected great things. Unfortunately, it proved underwhelming. But a facelift and more powerful battery dramatically improved the e-Golf, giving a 180 mile range and restoring the Golf’s reputation.
24. 2018: Jaguar I-Pace
Jaguar stole a lead on German car makers, bringing its I-Pace to showrooms almost a year before Audi, BMW and Mercedes launch comparable models. It needed to. Until that point, the company had been late to the diesel sales boom – 67 years after Mercedes – and there was no hybrid in its range. By cutting to the chase and jumping straight to electric cars, it could have just made the smartest business decision in its history.
25. 2019: Tesla Model 3
If Tesla has played its cards right, this could be the model that propels the Californian car maker into the big league. Tesla is accepting deposits from Britain’s drivers for the new Model 3. About the size of a BMW 3 Series and likely to cost from £30,000, it promises a range of up to 310 miles.