The first electric car was built in 1886 by Thomas Parker in England. The first gasoline-powered car, using a 1-cylinder two-stroke engine from German Karl Benz, appeared two years later. The first American-built internal combustion vehicle came from the Duryea Brothers in Springfield, Mass., in 1893 — four years before the Stanley Brothers, F.O and F.E. from Kingfield, Maine, developed the steam-powered car. The Stanley Brothers actually had the best-selling car for two years — 1898-1899 — in all of America.
Ransom Olds (later Oldsmobile) next took the mantle of best-selling cars with his electric horseless carriages. Studebaker, a carriage maker of great renown, also shifted to electric horseless carriages in the early 1900s. Thomas Edison, kind of an early electric innovator, drove an electric Studebaker before he and camping companion Henry Ford determined that gas-powered cars made more sense — given the expanses of the country and the ability to take liquid fuel with them as they explored.
Before his assassination in 1901, President William McKinley “test drove” a Stanley Steamer — similar to Joe Biden’s recent turn at the wheel of a Hummer EV. McKinley also rode to the hospital in a Stanley ambulance — at 20 mph.
Through the 1920s electric cars remained popular in several large American cities, despite costing at least twice as much as comparable gas-powered cars. Well-off urbanites didn’t like hand-cranking their gas cars to start and had no need to worry about range anxiety. However, the internal combustion cars were winning the technology battle and could be employed for so many more uses, more conveniently than electric vehicles could. The electric starter motor, ironically, killed off the debate between gas and electric vehicles for decades to come.
The low cost of oil, the affordability of mass-produced gas vehicles like the Model T and Model A Fords, plus the great expansion of the country made the early electrics impractical. Range anxiety for the batteries, despite decades of development, hurt EV automakers then, and remains the ultimate decider now.
General Motors continued to work on electric cars, a carryover from its train operations. Secret projects included the Electrovair II — an electric Corvair in 1964 that included 800 pounds of zinc-lead batteries that cost $160,000 to replace. GM didn’t find the car worthy of production, oddly enough.
But in 1996, the GM EV1 debuted to wide acclaim. Sold only in California and Arizona, the EV1 had a large contingent of fans who were distraught when GM reclaimed the cars and destroyed them several years later.
Momentum had changed, though, with computers and lithium batteries creating greater options for electric vehicle development.
Nissan’s compact Leaf became the first viable mass-produced, and affordable, EV in 2011. The following year, Tesla, founded by engineer Martin Eberhard, revealed the Model S sedan, just four years after producing an electric-powered roadster from a Lotus sports car.
The Model S significantly altered the landscape; it was big, it was fast, it was sleek, and it was full of technology. It was, and is, pricey, as it remains in production today with the top Plaid model selling for $129,000.
Ten years after the Model S brought relevancy to Tesla, the brand has two assembly plants turning out almost 1 million cars a year, with two more plants under construction in Texas and Germany. Tesla’s two top-selling models, the midsize Y crossover and Model 3 sedan, are the best-selling luxury cars in America.
In 2022, a plethora of electric vehicles will hit the market, and as witnessed over 100 years ago, pricing will play a big part in the market penetration. Subaru’s Solterra, Kia’s Niro EV, and Toyota’s bZ4X will all retail close to the current starting price of the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Model 3 at $45,000. The pending Hyundai Ioniq5 and Kia EV6 crossovers will start at similar levels and quickly rise to over $55,000 as buyers request AWD and larger batteries for greater range.
Cadillac’s racy Lyriq will be priced at over $60,000. Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup will have a limited work edition for $42,000 with most selling for $55,000. BMW’s third EV vehicle, the I4, starts at a similar level. The Rivian R1T pickup, $69,000, the Hummer EV, $109,000, while the Lucid Air — the EV with the longest potential EPA range (520 miles) — will start at $77,000 with the Dream Edition listing for $169,000 with 1,111 hp.
The first electric cars were known as “expensive toys for rich folks.” The current crop of pending EVs will split that paradigm as many new automakers need the elevated income to survive, while car-makers like Toyota, Hyundai and Ford will apparently make EVs for the masses. Their multibillion-dollar investments in EV infrastructure in the Southern states reflects these efforts.
With range anxiety a primary hindrance to buyers, followed by price, it will be an interesting decade, or two, to see how 280 million vehicles in America transition to electric propulsion — or not.