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A brief history of the electric car – 1830 to present day

The electric car has only really started to become popular in the past decade – or so you may think

EV charging

The electric car has been around for almost 200 years, and has slowly been developed in the shadow of the internal combustion engine, which became more popular in a shorter space of time.

In fact, they have both been around for roughly the same amount of time, but more focus was put onto cars as we know them today because the technology was easier and cheaper to develop.

Who knows where we’d be if electric power took off all those years ago?

Here’s a quick dive into the history of the electric car and why it may not be as recent as you might think.

1830 – where it all began

Surprisingly enough, the electric vehicle has been around for much longer than you may initially have thought.

The first electric car saw the light of day in the early 1930s after those who used a horse and carriage figured there might be a better way to get around – especially once their horse gave up.

This was especially prevalent in the USA as more money and interest was present at that time.

Then, in 1832, the first electric car was invented by a Brit, but this was in the very early stages and didn’t really start to become more popular until the 1870s.

historic electric car

1900 – electric cars start to gain traction

By 1900, electric cars were becoming very popular in America (but not so much in the UK just yet) and accounted for around a third of all vehicles on the road.

They were especially popular in large cities such as New York, as were most cars because that’s where the money was and electric cars didn’t have that much range at all back then.

1901 – the first hybrid electric car is invented

After electric cars began to gain traction, Thomas Edison – you know, that guy who invented the lightbulb – thought he’d like a slice of that pie and he began working on trying to improve the batteries found in electric vehicles.

Well, if there was anyone who was going to tackle it, it would be the man who invented the phonograph and the motion picture camera.

1971 – EVs going to the moon

During the Apollo 14 mission, an electric car was actually used – the Lunar Roving Vehicle. This was a battery-powered vehicle that weighed 210kg and had a top speed of 8mph.

If you think electric vehicles are expensive now, then you’ll be shocked to find out this one, made by Boeing, cost a staggering £32.3 million in 1971 – £236.1 million in today’s money.

Following on from this, the seventies were full of weird and wonderful attempts at making electric vehicles – none of which were all that successful, but we had to start somewhere.

1990 – heads turn towards EVs following new regulations

After a lot of playing around with electric power, some countries decided to make a real change and push towards making electric cars the norm.

In the US especially, new regulations were being implemented to renew the interest in EVs after a quiet patch in the eighties.

These regulations saw EVs being able to reach higher speeds and perform closer to the standards of petrol-powered vehicles.

1997 – the arrival of the Prius

After not much success over in America, Toyota decided to step up and bring out a car that would change the world.

The mighty Prius was mocked for years by motoring journalists and car enthusiasts alike, but was the first mass-produced hybrid.

At the start, it was mostly bought by celebs in Hollywood, but it soon became the choice of car for the taxi driver and has since extended to become a staple in the push for EVs.

Toyota Prius

2010 – Leaf etc

Between the late '90s and 2010, the push for electric cars became very strong and almost every mainstream carmaker was giving it a go in one way or another, whether it was through fully electric cars or hybrids.

One of the main companies that rose from this is Tesla, which wasn’t all that successful in the beginning but is now the world’s largest manufacturer of EVs.

Other companies that excelled at this time included Nissan with the Leaf, Renault with the Zoe, and Honda with the Fit EV.

Nissan LEAF

2012 – Tesla Model S

After struggling to get anywhere with the Roadster, Tesla decided enough was enough and attempted making a family car for the masses instead of a niche sports car.

The resulting car was the Model S, and it’s now one of the best-selling electric cars in the world.

Despite the infrastructure being so fresh back then, the Model S still made a big impression and was surprisingly popular, but mostly as a second car for wealthier folk because of the lower range and higher charging difficulties.

Tesla Model S

2015 – more car makers join the revolution

By 2015, pretty much every carmaker had launched an electric vehicle of some description.

Tesla was still very popular, but some other more mainstream manufacturers were gaining traction in the space too, such as BMW with the i3, Volkswagen with the e-UP!, Kia with the Soul EV, and Mitsubishi with its Outlander PHEV SUV.

At this time, the infrastructure was also growing, which made it easier for people to charge their cars out and about instead of waiting for 10+ hours at home.

2020 – The Great Ban

In November 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the government’s plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035.

This shocked the country and means that carmakers had just 10 years to sort themselves out and make EVs, otherwise they would never be able to sell cars in the country again.

Since that announcement, a number of other countries have followed suit, and a lot of car makers have kicked into gear and are either pumping out more EVs or last-hurrah V12 manuals – both of which are fine by us.

Present day

This takes us to the present day – just a few years on from Boris’s announcement – and we’re still in a strange limbo where we don’t quite know what direction we’ll go in, or who we should believe.

Nevertheless, we’ll see what happens. Regardless of whether you’re a car enthusiast or not, we will always have cars in some form or another – maybe even flying ones, which would be either great fun or utter mayhem.

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