Discover the fascinating history of EVs – from the first electric car, to modern-day marvels. Our brief guide covers everything you need to know
Chances are, the first electric car you actually saw would’ve been a Nissan Leaf, or perhaps a Tesla. Despite their recent rise in popularity, electric vehicles (EVs) have existed in one form or another since the 1800s.
This guide explores the fascinating history of EVs – from the very first battery-powered carriages to today’s swift, silent electric cars.
The origins of electric cars
The very first EVs sprang from a series of breakthroughs starting way back in the 1830s. Early experiments saw inventors add crude electric motors to model vehicles and locomotives, drawing power either through railway tracks or from non-rechargeable batteries. It would take the invention of lead-acid batteries in the mid-1800s to allow for the creation of EVs as we know them – passenger-carrying vehicles with on-board rechargeable batteries.
When was the first fully electric car made?
The first ever electric car is thought to have been built in Paris in 1881. This marks the first vehicle to carry a person and be powered by a rechargeable on-board battery.
Who made the first fully electric car?
The inventor responsible for the first electric car was Gustave Trouvé. The design was little more than a bicycle with a large third wheel powered by an electric motor, riding alongside in a sidecar. Meanwhile in Britain, inventor Thomas Parker – a key figure in the development of the London Underground – assembled an early four-wheeled electric car in 1884 in an effort to lessen the smog that had begun choking industrial London.
Several other inventors came up with battery-powered electric vehicle concepts in the late 19th century including William Morrison in the US, Andreas Flocken in Germany, and famed Austrian automotive inventor Ferdinand Porsche. At the time, the range and performance achieved by EVs was comparable or even better than crude early fuel-powered vehicles, although the subsequent invention of the electric starter motor and improvements in engine efficiency meant engine-powered cars would become dominant throughout the 20th century.
The early rise and fall of electric cars
In the early 20th century, electric vehicles were just as popular as fuel and steam-powered automobiles. They did not require a hand crank to start and were significantly quieter and less smelly. By 1900, electric cars accounted for a third of all vehicles on the road – most could be found in New York City, working as taxis.
Several factors would conspire to derail the progress of early electric cars, however. A key shortcoming was the very short range achievable by lead-acid batteries, whereas fuel-powered engines were getting more efficient with each new generation, allowing longer travel distances. What’s more, there were effectively no public EV recharging points, either, with most being privately installed in wealthy buyers’ homes.
Another problem stemmed from the marketing of early EVs. Due to the high cost of the batteries, early EVs were targeted at wealthy buyers, which meant they did not enjoy the kind of high-volume success that cars such as the fuel-powered Ford Model T achieved. In addition, the smooth and silent operation of early EVs meant they were often marketed towards upper class women which, predictably, limited their appeal among male car buyers.
The final nail in the coffin for the first EVs was the creation of the electric starter motor in 1903. This eliminated the need to hand crank the engine to start it – one of the least pleasant aspects of early motoring – and meant that most buyers eventually moved over to engine-powered vehicles.
The EV dark ages
Most of the 20th century would pass before interest in electric cars would grow again. The 1973 oil crisis sent gas prices in the west soaring to record levels, driving a renewed push to reduce dependence on foreign oil – particularly in the United States.
However, the EV concepts produced during the 20th century were extremely compromised compared with their fuel-powered rivals. Again, the two key factors that limited the success of these EVs were their high purchase price (driven by expensive batteries) and their poor range performance, with most concepts struggling to top 50 miles on a charge.
The answer would ultimately come with the development of the lithium-ion battery in the late 20th century. This novel chemistry first began hitting consumer products in 1991 and would quickly become the universal standard for rechargeable cells thanks to its superior storage capacity and its low price compared to other chemistries.
The electric car renaissance
As we moved into the 21st century, concern grew about the environmental damage caused by the millions of fuel-powered vehicles on our roads. This led to renewed interest in electric vehicles, with brands such as Toyota and Honda starting to offer hybrid petrol-electric models that used an electric motor at city speeds and a petrol engine on faster roads.
Three key models heralded the current wave of modern electric cars. The first was the 2008 Tesla Roadster, which was powered by thousands of readily available lithium-ion cells – the same type found in many laptops and power tools. This gave it strong acceleration and a range of more than 200 miles – unheard of for an EV at the time.
Next up was the Nissan Leaf, launched in 2010. This unassuming family hatchback offered a respectable range of around 100 miles but, crucially, was priced only slightly higher than equivalent fuel-powered rivals.
While the Tesla Roadster and the Nissan Leaf would remain fairly niche choices, the 2012 Tesla Model S arguably brought battery-powered cars into the mainstream. It used a refined version of the battery pack developed in the Roadster and a powerful electric motor to give a range of more than 250 miles and rapid acceleration. The Model S finally proved to the world that EVs could be fast and desirable, while also delivering a useful amount of range for the money.
The future of electric cars
More and more EV options are now being offered by a wide range of brands. The forces driving this greater availability are mainly economic – the price of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by roughly a factor of 10 since around 2010, making it cheaper to build EVs. In addition, governments around the world are beginning to agree future bans on the sale of fuel-powered vehicles in an attempt to reduce the damage done by climate change.
After years of price drops, however, recent raw material price rises and worldwide geopolitical instability mean that the price-per-kWh for lithium-ion batteries is unlikely to fall much further. However, it is hoped that prices for EVs will continue to fall as automakers develop more experience and manufacturing infrastructure. Equally, new battery chemistries might help reduce costs in the future, helping bring purchase prices down.
Thinking of buying an EV?
With so many fantastic battery-powered options on the market, it can be tough to know what car is right for you. Check out our handy guide explaining the differences between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars. If you’re ready to take the plug-in plunge, see our picks for the best cheap EVs and the best small EVs.