The History of the Electric Car: A Timeline

View of a woman charging the 'Henney Kilowatt', an electric automobile.

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The first electric car was produced around 1835—maybe even a few years earlier. Electric vehicles (EVs) actually have a longer history than cars with internal combustion engines.

Learn more about their long history and the false starts along the way.

EVs Dominance in the 1800s

Thomas Edison sitting in the first electric truck, made in 1883.
Thomas Edison sits on the first electric truck, made in 1883.

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Electric vehicles had a nearly 50-year head start on combustion engine vehicles. Steam drove the first horseless carriages, but it was not a practical source of energy for personal vehicles.

Once batteries were invented, electric motors followed. Soon, people began putting those batteries and motors on carriages. Until Ford's Model T, battery-propelled electric vehicles dominated any vehicular travel faster than a horse.

1800: Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic pile, which is able to store electricity chemically. We now call the voltaic pile a battery.

1821: English chemist Michael Faraday invents an electric motor driven by a voltaic pile.

1832-39: Scotsman Robert Anderson develops a battery-powered horseless carriage with a non-rechargeable battery.

1835: Dutch chemist Sibrandus Stratingh develops an “electromagnetic carriage,” one of which is on display in Groningen, the Netherlands—the oldest electric vehicle still in existence.

1839: Scottish chemist man Robert Davidson creates an electric locomotive that could travel 4 mph, far slower than steam locomotives of the day.

1859: The lead-acid battery is invented.

1881: French inventor Gustave Trouve exhibits a three-wheeled vehicle with a rechargeable battery at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris.

1882: English professor William Ayrton and Irish professor John Perry invent a three-wheeled electric vehicle that could travel up to 25 miles at 9 mph. In the same year, English financier Paul Bedford Elwell and engineer Thomas Parker begin manufacturing rechargeable batteries.

Depot where electrically driven Paris cabs were fitted with freshly charged batteries, 1899.
A depot where electric cabs were fitted with re-charged batteries.

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1887: Irishman John Boyd Dunlop's pneumatic tires make EVs more comfortable to ride.

1890; William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, introduced a six-passenger electric wagon, capable of achieving a maximum speed of 14 mph, compared to 5 mph speeds by the standard stagecoach.

1897: The Morris and Salom Electric Carriage and Wagon Company runs a small fleet of electric cabs in New York City, driven by “lightning cabbies.” Electric cab companies also take off in Paris and London.

An Electric Motor Cab And Driver, circa 1897.
An electric cab on the streets of London, circa 1897.

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1898: Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat sets the first electric vehicle record for fastest land vehicle in the world at 39.24 mph.

1899: The Baker Motor Vehicle Company is founded. Thomas Edison was an early customer.

EVs Fall in the Early 1900s

In the early 20th century, it seemed that electric vehicles would dominate the market, as demand for them continued to rise. However, the mass-produced Model T undercut the price of EVs by more than half. 

The energy density of gasoline was far greater than that of a chemical battery. Once gasoline became cheap and roads began to be paved, the internal combustion engine took over the roads. 

By 1920, there were hardly any horses pulling carriages on roadways, and by 1935, there were no more electric vehicles either.

1900: Ferdinand Porsche introduces the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, the world's first petrol-electric hybrid vehicle, followed soon by imitators. At this point, a third of all vehicles on American roads were electric.

1901: British Queen Alexandra purchases a Columbia Electric car for driving around the grounds of Sandringham House.

1902: The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company launches a range of electric cars and trucks. Thomas Edison is his second customer.

The 1901 Columbia Electric car
The 1901 Columbia Electric car.

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1903: Thomas Edison creates a nickel-iron battery for his electric vehicles, which could be charged twice as fast as the lead-acid battery.

1906: The Belgian Auto-Mixte hybrid vehicle introduces regenerative braking.

1908: Henry Ford introduces the Model T. 15,000 orders are placed within the first year.

1912: Charles Kettering invents the electric starter, making gasoline-powered cars easier to start.

1913: Studebaker announces the end of its electric vehicle production.

1914: The Detroit Electric car is introduced, using Thomas Edison's nickel-iron battery, with a claimed range of 80 miles. The vehicle so impresses Henry Ford that he buys one for Thomas Edison and considers developing his own low-cost electric vehicles.

1920s: Gasoline prices plummet with the discovery of oil in Texas oil. Gasoline stations appear alongside a paved road system, and the development of electric or hybrid vehicles essentially stops.

False Starts for EVs in the mid 1900s

Shortages of World War II brought renewed interest in electric vehicles. National governments supported research and development, but most electric vehicles failed to even make it to market. Those that did were small, urban commuter cars, leaving consumers with the impression that EVs were no more than modified golf carts. None survived more than a few years.

1940s: Devastation from World War II, including a shortage of petroleum products, revives interest in and production of electric vehicles.

1942: Peugeot introduces the three-wheeled Voiture Legere de Ville (Light City Car).

1940s: Italian car company Maserati shifts from race cars to electric vehicles.

1947: The Tachikawa Airplane company introduces electric vehicles to war-devastated Japan.

1956: After the Great Smog of 1952 grips London, Britain's Clean Air Act renews interest in electric vehicles.

1959: The Henney Kilowatt electric vehicle is introduced by the Eureka Williams Corporation, with a top speed of 60 mph and a range of 60 miles. Only 100 vehicles are ever produced.

View of a woman charging the 'Henney Kilowatt', an electric automobile engineered by the Eureka Williams Corporation, 1966.
The Henney Kilowatt, charged at home, 1966.

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1960s: Electric vans become popular as delivery vehicles in Great Britain.

1962: Peel Engineering introduces the three-wheeled electric P50 Microcar, the smallest production car in history. Enthusiasts re-introduce it in 2011.

Model Karen Burch at the wheel of a Peel P50, a new microcar produced by the Manx Peel Engineering Company, outside the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, before the start of the Motor Cycle Show, London, 8th November 1962.
The Peel P50 microcar, 1962.

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1964: General Motors begins work on the Electrovair, a modified Corvair with a powerful electric motor. Poor battery design dooms the vehicle, which never makes it to market.

1966: Scottish Aviation introduces the ill-fated Scamp with a 30-mile range using innovative zinc-air batteries. After miserably failing an industry standard road test, production of the Scamp is discontinued after only 13 vehicles are produced.

A Scottish Aviation Scamp electric city car, London, UK, 1966.
The Scamp, 1966.

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Growing Interest in EVs in the late 1900s

1967: California establishes the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which begins the state's push for reducing or eliminating vehicle emissions.

1968: The Mars II is introduced in the United States with a maximum range of 120 miles. Fewer than fifty vehicles are ever made.

1973-76: The Enfield 8000, supported by the British government's Electricity Council, fails to attract customers. No more than 150 cars are ever produced.

1974: The U.S. Government supports conversion of a Buick Skylark into a hybrid electric vehicle, but the project is rejected by the Environmental Protection Agency.

1974-1977: SebringVanguard introduces the CitiCar, which underwhelms American consumers with its top speed of 38 mph for the “high-power” edition. It sells a total of 2,300 cars.

Passersby pause beside a Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, an electric, parked on an unspecified street, Washington DC, February 18, 1974.
The Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, 1974.

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1970s: Fiat, General Motors, and Nissan develop EV prototypes that they never bring to market.

1982: The U.S. Department of Energy increases funding for hybrid and electric vehicle research and development. Advanced electric powertrains are the result.

1985: Sinclair Vehicles introduces the C5, a one-person electric vehicle, with a lack of weather protection and only 20 miles of range. Production ceases within 8 months of release, and only 5,000 vehicles are sold.

The Sinclair C5 electric vehicle.
The Sinclair C5 electric vehicle.

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1985: Volkswagen experiments with electric and hybrid versions of its popular Golf vehicles.

1992: Renault launches the Zoom, a foldable city car, with many of the features of full-sized vehicles. The vehicle never makes it out of concept stage.

1996: General Motors introduces the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle, then prematurely cancels all of its leases, withdraws the vehicle, and controversially scraps it in 2002.

General Motors' EV1
The short-lived EV1 on the streets of Palm Springs, California.

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EVs Gain Traction in the 2000s

The turn of the 21st century saw electric vehicles and hybrids take places alongside gas-powered vehicles on the roadway. Cars from Prius, Nissan, and Tesla bring the electric vehicles out of the "street-legal golf cart" era.

While the Nissan Leaf filled a niche, Tesla's vehicles disrupted an entire industry, leading to increasing EV sales and pressuring legacy automakers to introduce an ever-growing line of electric vehicles.

2000: The Toyota Prius is introduced worldwide as the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. This inspires other manufacturers to introduce their own hybrids.

The Toyota Prius in 2004.
The Toyota Prius in 2004.

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2010: Nissan introduces the Leaf with lithium-ion batteries, winning many “car of the year” awards and becoming the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.

2010: Tesla introduces the Roadster, turning heads and changing minds about electric vehicles.

The Tesla Roadster
The Tesla Roadster.

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2012: The Model S, Tesla's first passenger vehicle, is released, becoming the best-selling electric vehicle in the U.S. the following year. Renault introduces the Zoe, which becomes the top-selling European electric vehicle of all time.

2016: The Chevrolet Bolt EV is unveiled and becomes Motor Trend's Car of the Year the following year.

2017: The Tesla Model 3, a scaled-down, lower-priced version of the Model S, is aimed at mass audiences. By the end of 2020, it becomes the best-selling electric vehicle of all time.

2020: Annual sales of electric vehicles in the United States increased by 1.1 million since 2010.

View Article Sources
  1. "The History of the Electric Car." U.S. Department of Energy.

  2. "Global EV Outlook 2021." International Energy Agency.