The electric car was already on the road in the 19th century
Did you know that battery-powered cars had their first golden age at the end of 1800? Or that the first Porsche model included a plug? Here we will reveal the secrets of the history of electric mobility.
This electric car is bullet-shaped, has an ultra-light chassis made from an aluminium, magnesium and tungsten alloy, and is the fastest wheeled vehicle in the world. Anyone would think that we are talking about the future, but we are not: the Jamais Contente was created in 1899 in France and broke the speed record by exceeding 100 km/h for the first time in automotive history.
Electric cars are, without a doubt, the present and future of mobility: this is recognised by the brands themselves, whose development departments work against the clock on battery-powered motors, and also by society, which has already begun its transition to this type of vehicle. Various countries have adopted regulations focused on gradually restricting the use of combustion cars and some, such as Germany, have already announced that it will prohibit them in 2030.
Many do not know, however, that electric mobility had already had its moment of glory more than a century ago, when the car began to take its first steps. Even though today Daimler-Benz is considered to be the father of the four-wheeled vehicle, parallel to its first petrol-powered models, the carriages that replaced the main “fuel” of the time – horses – with electric battery-powered motors also proliferated.
The Jamais Contente (in English, “Never Satisfied”) is one example, but there are many more. Not many people know that the first car developed by Ferdinand Porsche, creator of the benchmark brand of high-performance sports cars powered by petrol boxer engines, was electric. When he was only 22 years old and two decades before founding the firm that carries his name, the engineer received an order from manufacturer Jacob Lohner that would mark his life forever and become a milestone in automotive history: to create a carriage that was not drawn by horses. So Porsche designed a battery-powered motor and coupled a 12-speed gearbox to it: six to move forward, four to move backwards and two to brake. This is how the P1 was born, which first circulated on the streets of Vienna on 26 June 1898. It reached a speed of 34 km/h (a historic feat in those days, but let’s not forget that Porsche was a speed enthusiast) and was capable of covering a distance of 78 kilometres without needing to recharge the battery. A range which, incidentally, is not far from that of current electric cars.
At this point, you will probably be asking yourself: Who actually invented the electric car? The father of it all was Robert Davidson, a North American chemist to which the first battery-powered vehicle in history is attributed. This was in 1835, when he presented a locomotive capable of reaching a speed of 6 km/h. It was based on previous experimentation on electric motors carried out by engineers Ányos Jedlik and Thomas Davenport. Scottish inventor and entrepreneur Robert Anderson took hold of the idea and created the first battery-powered carriage in 1839, which was not rechargeable at the time, so that it had to be replaced whenever the battery became exhausted.
From that moment onwards, the boom was unstoppable. London and New York adopted this type of vehicle as taxis, which inundated their streets (exceeding one hundred in the North American city). As documented in the book The Electric Car: Development and Future of Battery, Hybrid and Fuel-Cell Cars, by Michael Hereward Westbrook, in 1900 there were a total of 1,684 steam-powered cars, while 1,575 were electric and only 963 petrol. According to the author, battery-powered vehicles were considered to be the best option for urban mobility at the time: they did not emit any type of harmful gas, had power to spare and enough range to circulate around the city during the day and recharge at night.
Does this sound familiar? These are, precisely, the virtues that stand out in an electric car today, with the added advantage that they are capable of covering many more kilometres and charging times have been reduced to one hour and, in some cases, even less. The network of charging points at service stations is steadily growing, such that travelling is no longer a problem.
The electric car lost the battle to combustion engine cars in the last century, precisely due to their lower range, but that is a drawback that has now been solved. Battery-powered vehicles are not only eco-friendly, they also represent savings for drivers. “The circumstances are different in each case, but if we consider that 1 kilowatt costs €0.15, with much less VAT than that applied to fossil fuels, covering 100 kilometres costs approximately €2. Far lower than the expenditure for petrol vehicles,” says Elena Bernárdez, Deputy Manager of Electric Mobility at Endesa, adding: “If we calculate the emissions of an electric car taking into account the generation of energy at source, it is much cleaner than a combustion engine car: it emits less than half the CO2 and, in certain cases, as little as a third.”
For all these reasons, we are approaching a new golden era of the electric car, which marks the way ahead: silent and emission-free.