From an EV banned by Hitler to Ford's first electric truck.
Given the tone and veracity of media coverage of electric vehicles over the past couple of years, it would be easy to believe nobody had thought of EVs before and that Elon Musk had conjured the electric car from his backside to save the world. The truth is that some of the first cars were powered by batteries, and EVs first became popular around the turn of the 20th century, but it was the electric starter motor that effectively killed the electric car for mass consumers along with the cheap cost of Ford's Model T. However, automakers have constantly been looking at the viability of contemporary technology for cars charging from the electric grid as a replacement for gasoline power. These are just some that history shouldn't forget.
The Peugeot VLV was canceled by the Nazis, which is about the biggest compliment you could give a vehicle. The little electric car came about from practicality as the German occupation of France involved automakers having to turn their plants over to the conquerors, and gasoline being sold to citizens was outlawed. The French did not take any of this laying down, though. People got creative in converting their cars to run on things like acetylene or compressed gases captured from burning combustible materials. In secret, some companies had a go at making electric cars, but the only major automaker to do so was Peugeot. The company's engineers worked in secret to design the car, then sold it overtly.
The VLV (Voiture Légère de Ville, meaning Light City Car) had a narrower rear track than the front, so it wouldn't need a differential, ran on four 12-volt batteries, and got a range of around 50 miles with a top speed of 22 mph. The occupying Nazi regime wasn't impressed, and it was banned with just 377 built.
Nissan has Tama Electric Car number 0009 in its heritage collection, and it's as cute as a start button. It's relevant here because before Nissan became Nissan, Tama was a brand name under the Tokyo Electro Automobile Company, which became Prince Motors, Ltd, which merged with Nissan. In 1947, Japan was crippled following World War II and had a shortage of oil, food, and goods in general. However, because there were few home appliances or bulk electricity users, electrical power was abundant. That led to an abundance of electric car start-up companies, and they were popular until petrol became viable as fuel again. The little 4.5-hp Tama Electric Car was a four-seater often used up until 1951 as a taxi. There was also a truck version available. Impressively, it weighed as little as a Mazda MX-5 Miata and had a range of 40 miles but was known to manage up to 60. The downside was a lead-acid battery and a top speed of only 22 mph (17 if you wanted maximum range).
GM was looking hard at EVs in the 1960s, and the lightweight rear-engined Corsair was ripe for conversion. The sequel to the first Electrovair concept put the electric motor in the back and was powered by a 532-volt silver-oxide battery array from the front of the car and mounted above the rear motor. The Electrovair II had a range of 40-80 miles and similar performance figures to the gas-powered car. Unfortunately, the silver-oxide battery array was power-dense, but it degraded quickly, and the lifetime for the batteries was around 100 charges.
In the 1960s, the big three were experimenting, but so was AMC. What's so interesting about the little Amitron concept was how advanced it was. It used advanced battery design, regenerative braking, aerodynamics, and lightweight materials to manage 150 miles on a single charge. And yes, you read that right - the Ambition featured regenerative braking fifty years before it became commonplace. AMC worked with Gulton Industries to build the concept and develop lithium-nickel-fluoride batteries. However, they also used more traditional nickel-cadmium batteries as lithium batteries didn't generate a lot of instantaneous power.
The Amitron led to a series of electric concepts in the 1970s as well as the production Jeep DJ-5E Electruck - a short-range delivery vehicle the U.S. Postal Service used in cities suffering from severe air pollution.
BMW's first foray into electric vehicles showed itself publicly at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Unfortunately, those games are more memorable for a Palestinian militant group's terrorist attack on Israeli Olympic team members. More people would remember the orange electric BMW 1602 concept models used to support marathon and long-distance walking events if it wasn't for that tragedy. An Olympic marathon is just over 26 miles long and, using a dozen 12-volt lead-acid car batteries, the 1602e had a range of 43 miles at a steady 31 mph - almost three times as fast as a professional marathon runners pace.
In modern terms, the 1602e isn't impressive. It was more a proof of concept with batteries weighing a massive 772 pounds and nine seconds needed to hit 60 mph. However, it would keep accelerating to 115 mph.
General Motors (GM) could have led the way into electric vehicles in the late 1990s but instead claimed it would be an unprofitable niche and crushed all but 40 of the cars it produced and leased out. The first generation used lead batteries and had a range of 60-100 miles, and 660 were produced. The second generation ran from 1999 to 2003 with a lot of improvements, including a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. GM built 457 of those to lease, and they had a range of 100-140 miles. The recall and crushing of the cars are still controversial, and few of the forty sent to universities and museums have survived. In fact, so few have survived that the EV1 is one of the rarest 1990s vehicles out there. Customers loved the EV1, it had a realistic range for many use cases, and GM sunk a lot of money into its development. Ultimately, GM could have led the electric revolution but, whether deliberate or not, dropped the ball and cleared the way for Tesla.
Unless you live in a specific country, it's unlikely you've heard of the Nissan R'nessa or the electric version called Altra. The Altra version of Nissan's large wagon was the first EV to use lithium-ion batteries and was sold in Japan and the United States. Only 200 were built, though, and in the US, they were used primarily by utility companies, although a few found their way into rental fleets. Some were also used as parking enforcement vehicles by the Santa Monica Police Department. The Nissan Altra had a range of 80 miles and used an inductive battery charging system - or as we call it now, wireless charging. However, the wireless bit is only between the charging pad and the device/vehicle's induction coil. For the Altra, a paddle had to be inserted into a port in the front grille.
Henry Ford was a friend of Thomas Edison, and in 1914, he told The New York Times, "Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging." He worked on the project but couldn't get the weight down enough. Ford would return to electric vehicles again in the 1950s and through to the 1960s. But it wasn't until 1999 that Ford bought the Norwegian company Think Global and its curious little plastic-bodied city car it had been developing since 1991. Ford put invested another $100 million in battery development and put the Think City into production.
Ford was serious in the 1990s about developing EVs, and it led to the Ford Ranger EV being built between 1998 to 2002. It was expensive, but a lease program led to the Ranger EV becoming mainly a government fleet vehicle. For the first year, the truck used lead-acid batteries but quickly moved onto 26 kilowatt-hour nickel-based battery packs with around 80 miles of range.
Tesla was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, and the Lotus-based Roadster was the first vehicle developed. It was the first production EV to use lithium-ion batteries and go 200 miles on a single charge. It also hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, and a total of 2,450 were sold. It didn't come without its problems, but the 2005 Tesla Roadster was the proof of concept the all-electric car needed to change the course of automotive history.
The Roadster wasn't entirely a Tesla product however and was more of a proof of concept. Beneath the skin, it was actually the same chassis used for the Lotus Elise, thinly disguised and given a new powertrain.