The History of Electric Cars – 20th Century

A continuation of my previous article on EVs during the 19th Century, I now cover some significant events in the 20th century around electric cars. Arguably, during this time period, EVs had two chances to become mainstream, but both were impacted by events in the energy industry.


If there is one key event that killed the EV’s chances in the 20th Century – this is it. The hugely successful Model-T Ford began mass production. Through it was a hand crank car, gasoline was already readily available, and the efficient production line processes made it relatively cheap compared to previous cars.


Texas crude oil is discovered. The electric starter motor is invented and patented by Clyde J Coleman.


1912 Cadillac

The electric starter motor is added to the first car, the 1912 Cadillac – no more hand cranking! Petrol cars suddenly become much more convenient and usable.


By this time, EVs are lost in the wilderness. They have been subsumed by internal combustion engines, and practically none are left on the roads.


During the lost years, there was little buzz or success with electric vehicles. Though a few were produced, the continuing success of the oil industry made them unappealing to consumers, and they were still expensive and impractical. However, the launch of Apollo 8 showed the world from a new perspective, and started the beginnings of the environmental movement.


Boeing built the first Lunar Roving Vehicle, the LRV-1. It first went out on the Apollo 15 mission to the moon.

It was further developed and used on Apollo 16 and 17 missions.

LRV-1 Specs
Top Speed:11.2 mph (Lunar speed record)
Range:57 miles
Charge Time:Not Rechargeable
Lunar Roving Vehicle 1


Victor Wouk, the “Godfather of the Hybrid,” builds the first full-powered, full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark for the 1970 Federal Clean Car Incentive Program.

His prototype was efficient, doubling the fuel economy of the vehicle. Arguably it was as performant as the Toyota Prius, not built until 2001. Incidentally, he owned one of the first Priuses built. His ideas were stymied by the head of the EPA at the time, who described hybrid technology as “going nowhere.” They declined to build any more cars, despite the enormous success of the prototype.


California passes its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, which requires two percent of the state’s vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003.


A few thousand all-electric cars were produced in this period, to meet the demands of the ZEV mandate. These included:

  • Honda’s EV Plus
  • G.M.’s EV1
  • Ford’s Ranger pickup EV
  • Nissan’s Altra EV
  • Chevy’s S-10 EV
  • Toyota’s RAV4 EV)

Most of them were available for lease only.

EV1 Specs:
Range:60 miles (Gen 1), 160 miles (Gen 2).
Top Speed:80 mph
Charge Time:8 hrs (Gen 1)
Cost:$33,995 ($299 to $574 mon/lease)
General Motors EV1

The EV1 was an extraordinary vehicle, and is another example of technology which was ahead of it’s time.


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