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Can the Electric Car Make a Comeback? 50 Years Ago This Week

Published: February 1, 2017

In 1900, more than a third of all cars on the road were electric. Gasoline-powered cars at the time were loud, smelly, and much more difficult to operate. That is, until Henry Ford’s cheap and easy-to-use Model T took over the car market. The discovery of large oil reserves and the marked improvement of roads finally spelled the end of the early electric car.

When an article on electric cars appeared in the January 28, 1967, issue of the Post, the major auto manufacturers were starting to noodle with battery-powered vehicles again. Author Roy Bongartz set out to find himself an exhaustless, gasless, noiseless electric car. He never really succeeded.

The problem with electric vehicles in the 1960s was primarily the batteries: lead-acid batteries were heavy, sodium-sulfur ones were noxious and flammable, and silver-zinc batteries were expensive and short-lived. None had the oomph to give vehicles the needed range. (GM was developing a van with a range of 150 miles that could go 70 miles an hour, but without “luxuries” like heat and air conditioning.)

The author finally found a drivable non-production electric car but was warned not to accelerate too quickly, or he’d blow the fuses.

By the end of the article, Bongartz never did get his car, but he imagined great things were in store:

Rules can be broken with the electric, and my head is exploding with all kinds of possibilities: self-service taxi fleets, tiny cars bundled aboard trains for vacations, exchangeable battery packs ready at every corner, highways alive with power imbedded in the concrete. But somehow Ill have to cool my impatience because for today, anyway, I still cannot buy an electric that will get me to Providence and back.

It would be 40 years before auto companies would finally make production electric vehicles. Independent auto maker Tesla sold the first highway-legal, serial-production, all-electric car in 2008. It was soon followed by Mitsubishi, Nissan, GM, and others.

As batteries improve, range anxiety lessens, and features such as ludicrous acceleration and self-driving capabilities tantalize customers, electric cars may finally be having their moment.


It Clicks, It Hums — It’s Supercar!

By Roy Bongartz 
Photographs by Dan Wynn 

Electric meterFor some reason I have always been daffy about electric cars. Maybe it’s because they seem to move by magic. They don’t steam, puff, roar, backfire, or spew out a jet stream. They just give a contented hum and an occasional click. As a kid I rode to its end every trolley line in Dayton, Ohio; today, if I am set at liberty near the Dodg’em cars in an amusement park, I am a loss to the outside world until the current is shut off for the night. I’m thinking of taking golf lessons, so I can ride in an electric cart. I even like slot cars.

The lovable feature of the electric is what it hasn’t got: It hasn’t got troubles. There is hardly anything in it or on it to wear out or go on the blink. The absence of gasoline, for example, means no tank, no gas cap or lock, no gas line that can freeze. Gone with the engine itself are motor oil, filter, pump, and pressure gauge; pistons and rings; generator, distributor (with its timing adjustments and frail points), spark plugs, air filter, radiator, water pump, hoses, antifreeze, fan and fan belt. There is no driveshaft — thus no hump in the floor — no transmission, no starter motor, no exhaust pipe, and — of course — no exhaust.

When Ford and General Motors announced this fall that they were working on new electric cars, and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D., Wash.) introduced a bill to spend $10 million developing such a vehicle, I was galvanized into action and made Detroit my first stop. I have long wanted to buy one of these gentle smokeless carriages, but I could never find a good one. Now, I thought, my fortunes were changing.

Electric vehicles are used in various places in the United States and abroad; trucks, some of them vintage models, are used in stop-and-go delivery of many items; golf carts move such sportsmen as former President Eisenhower over the fairways. The state-owned French Renault company has an electric-car project; the city of Osaka, Japan, is converting its 1,900 buses to battery power. In England, which has 40,000 electric delivery trucks, the British Electricity Council foresees a million electric cars within 10 years — “given enterprise, courage and swift action.” The Tennessee Valley Authority is testing an electric car as a potential market for electricity.

Of course, long before I got my first driver’s license in 1938, the last of the old electrics had disappeared from my family’s Ohio neighborhood. It wasn’t until six years ago that I finally drove one myself — a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia with its insides scooped out and replaced with half a ton of storage batteries and an electric motor. Its owner, another fanatic named H. Drake Harkins, a retired Atlantic City Electric Company executive, used to drive it tirelessly around a dirt track. He and I drove it in traffic, too, scoffing at the fuming gasoline cars, glancing haughtily at the anachronistic gas stations. The trouble was that you couldn’t keep it up for long before the batteries died.

This was the trouble that killed the electric in the first place. There was little to be done about it; piling on more batteries doesn’t help because a car fails to gain extra power when the weight of its batteries reaches more than 45 percent of its total weight, according to an empirically determined law of diminishing returns. Though standard lead-acid batteries are now 75 percent stronger than they were 25 years ago, they still can’t give a car much range. No matter how much I loved that forthright getaway and that cheery hum, I had to face the fact that an electric just could not make it from my house to town and back — some 50 miles. Sadly, I decided to forget it.

But now Ford and G.M., as well as Senator Magnuson, are talking about brand-new power sources. Fifteen Federal agencies are already paying for 86 different research projects on batteries, and Senator Magnuson wants the government to build the electric cars to go with them.

The “glassed-in drawing room on wheels,” as the electric used to be called, is waking up like Sleeping Beauty. The magic kiss may be simply the ugly fact that tons of pollutants are streaming into the American air every year. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D., Maine) and Representatives Richard L. Ottinger (D.,N.Y.) and Paul G. Rogers (D.,Fla.) have sponsored electric-car bills similar to Senator Magnuson’s, and the power companies, battery firms and conservationists are also eager to bring back the electric car.

If the electric car makes a comeback, it won’t be very much like the old one, which had so little power that a strong man could keep it from moving if he pushed on the hood with one hand. One oldster recalled, “It became identified with lady drivers and older people who were not concerned with dash and dreams of glory. Like its upholstery, its public image was dove gray.” The first electric vehicle in the United States was a tricycle built by Philip W. Pratt in Boston in 1888. The first car was built by William Morrison of Des Moines in 1890, and within 10 years electrics outnumbered gasoline cars. They weren’t all dove gray, either; in 1902, Walter Baker’s electric caused one of the world’s first fatal car accidents: his oilcloth-and-basswood racer, the Torpedo, hit a row of spectators and killed two of them at a 1902 race on Staten Island. Undaunted, he later set the world’s record of 120 miles per hour; the car hit top speed just once, and then the batteries failed.

When Senator Magnuson introduced his bill, he asked the automobile makers what, if anything, they were doing about developing the electric. First to reply was Ford president Arjay Miller, who announced a new battery “that we expect could offer tremendous improvements in range, performance and cost.”

Hoping to be on hand for Sleeping Beauty’s golden moment, I went to Detroit for the official presentation of Ford’s sodium-sulfur battery, said to be 15 times more powerful than ordinary ones. Set up in a glass tube, a single cell made of sodium, sulfur and alumina-soda successfully spun a three-inch wheel on a stand. Ford scientists said all they had to do now was make a bigger one and put it into a car. Dr. Michael Ference Jr., vice president for scientific research, said, “The development of a feasible electrically powered vehicle will continue to be one of the primary assignments of our scientific research staff and indeed the entire Ford Motor Company.” Ford has in mind a small City-Car to be designed by its British affiliate and tested with ordinary batteries next spring; a 500-pound sodium-sulfur battery should be ready for it within two years. Among the obstacles to be overcome is the danger of handling noxious sulfur and flammable sodium at 500 degrees F.

A bit let down at not having had an actual ride in an electric, I took my quest to the other automobile makers. A Chrysler spokesman said it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to visit them, although they have a battery called a fuel cell, which runs a 10-inch car around a track. Their chief engineer for basic-sciences research, Dr. C. R. Lewis, said, “These present fuel cells are at the same stage of development as the piston engine was during the Wright brothers’ first flight.”

General Motors wasn’t ready to talk when I called. Then, before a month had gone by, G.M. called me at my home in Foster, Rhode Island, to say they had a new electric truck, an electric car, and a revolutionary battery to boot ! Out to Detroit I went again. It turned out that G.M. had actually been working on electrics for two years. Executive Vice President Edward N. Cole described their display as a “milestone event.” Dr. Craig Marks, assistant engineer-in-charge of the power-development department, told me about his early research on the new car: “The things we had taken for granted as advantages of an electric car became our major problems. Smooth, quiet, and reliable! We had mechanical vibrations, and electrical noises, and electronic-circuit reliability problems such as we had never dreamed of.”

Outside, a pretty blue Corvair called Electrovair II drew up alongside a lagoon, where fountains played in the wind. I got into it, and a voluble young engineer with a crew cut checked me out on the specifications — electronic controls, 115-horsepower motor weighing only 130 pounds, and parts unknown in more prosaic electrics: a cooling system of circulating oil with a pump, fan motor, fan and radiator. We pushed off in a fine swing of increasing speed, with that solid, low-keyed humming I like so much. We hit 60 in just 16 seconds — top speed is 80. Though it weighs 800 pounds more than the Corvair, the car was engineered to equal Corvair performance except in range: Electrovair II’s range is only 80 miles. That would be enough to get me to town and back. But then we got out, and I looked at the batteries filling the front and rear compartments — silver-zinc batteries, worth $15,000, that wouldn’t last six months in regular use.

An old. electric car

G.M.’s Electrovair II, a Corsair converted from gas engine to batteries and motor.

I inspected the new lithium-chloride battery that could turn out to be 10 to 20 times more powerful than standard batteries; it, too, is in an early stage. Then came the electric truck, called the Electrovan, “the most advanced electric automotive vehicle ever built,” according to Marks. It is the first road vehicle ever to run on a fuel cell which, instead of storing power, makes current out of fuel as needed. Hydrogen and oxygen work best. It functions silently and efficiently, with no moving parts.

Inside the Electrovan were some 2,000 cells, developed for G.M. by Union Carbide. Each is like a thin battery, a sixth of an inch thick, with a hydrogen chamber on one side and an oxygen chamber on the other. They are fueled from three spheres, two for hydrogen and one for oxygen (the end product is H2O). The van develops 125 horsepower, has a range of 150 miles, and can go 70 miles an hour. It can hit 60 in 30 seconds; like the car, it was built to equal the performance of its model, the G.M.C. Handi-Bus, though it weighs twice as much.

It will be “ten to fifteen years before there’s any wide use of these power sources,” Vice President Cole said. “We have to start with what we have today — electric golf carts that make eighteen holes if you’re lucky. We’re not contemplating building any low-power car, without a heater or air conditioning. A lot of things are going to come before the electric car: for example, better control of emissions from gasoline engines.”

Even so, I felt that things were looking up. Ford’s battery, though not very big, looked promising, and my appetite for another ride in an electric was sharp. I had once met an executive of the Electric Storage Battery Company in Philadelphia, an electric-truck enthusiast named Morrison McMullan. I called him, and it turned out that he drives his own electric car to work every day. He invited me down to see it.

McMullan — “Mac” to friends — is a tall, graying man whose blue eyes, peering over half-lensed glasses, light up when he talks about electrics. And it’s not just because he works at a battery factory, either; he loves them. Seated in his ground-floor office, he gazed fondly at the roof of his car just outside; he had snaked a cable from the car through the window and plugged it into an outlet beside his desk.

The car is a refitted Renault Dauphine dubbed the Henney Kilowatt by its makers, the Eureka Williams Company of Bloomington, Ill. A colleague of Mac’s, Jim Norberg, has bought one too (they cost $3,500). The Kilowatt was the only electric car actually for sale to the public, but production is now suspended. Its makers say, “Tuneups are unnecessary, freezeups impossible, and motor breakdowns virtually eliminated. A major overhaul amounts only to cleaning the contact points and replacing the brushes.”

Mac opened trunk and engine compartments; six batteries sat in each. The rear also held a steel cylinder about the size of a water-cooler jug — the electric motor. This is geared into the rear axle. When it is turned on, the wheels go around. Its simplicity is its beauty. The dashboard has a speedometer, a voltmeter and a tiny switch, like one on a flashlight. When the switch is in the center position the car is off; up, the car is ready to go forward; down, backward. A pedal operates standard hydraulic brakes. Steering, lights and signals are all conventional. The only tricky item is the accelerator, which Mac said I’d learn about while driving.

Under the hood of an electric car.

Inside Electrovair II — $15,000 worth of silver-zinc batteries, under the hood and in the rear compartment, can power the electric car to a speed of 60 mph in 16 seconds.

I got behind the wheel, Mac got in beside me, and I pressed down on the pedal. As we moved out into the busy traffic of Rising Sun Avenue, the car click-clicked forward, going boo-bee-baalm-buzz like a circumspect trolley car. (The metal-on-metal clicks come when electric relays close magnetic switches in sequence as the accelerator is pressed.) It had a kind of doughty strength as it pushed through its six power levels to a top speed of 40. We passed a car and drew no attention to ourselves; there is nothing about it to show it’s an electric, except for the missing tail pipe. But Mac’s wife is so proud of it that she put a sign in the rear window: ELECTRIC. The 900 pounds of batteries gave us plenty of momentum, and braking at a stoplight came a bit hard. Climbing a hill, Mac warned, “Keep it at full speed, but be sure you press the pedal slowly enough to click through each stage in order from a stop, or you’ll blow the fuses.”

We stopped again at a light, and everything was automatically off. Mac gave a superior look at a throbbing car beside us. The electric motor works at its very best from a dead stop; its hefty torque — power to the wheels — makes it ideal for stop-and-go use, especially now, when in the centers of large cities traffic moves no faster than the horse-drawn vehicles of another era. Going downhill the car used no power, and Mac says that electrics can be wired for “dynamic electric braking” that would very slightly recharge the batteries at every stop. At the very least this would make a nice phrase for an advertisement.

The speed kept it up with the traffic; going at full tilt is good for the electric.

Mac would like to hook up an electric drag racer with silver-zinc batteries — these are the expensive ones, but they’re powerful — and run the car wide open. “I know we’d break 200 miles an hour within that quarter-mile,” he says. “Then the batteries would die, but that dragster would be famous.

Mac figures he uses three quarters of a kilowatt-hour per mile, which can be more or less expensive than gasoline, depending upon local electric rates. He increases the 20-mile traffic-driving range by charging up during the day as well as at night. As for repairs, in two years he has replaced two light bulbs and the contact points. The batteries cost $500 and last about five years.

An odd feature of the electric is that its batteries gain back a little power when the car stands still. This is the same phenomenon that lets you run down a starting battery, wait an hour, and find it able to turn the motor over a few more times. When I asked Mac if he had ever run out of electricity, he said he had, but could use the recuperative power to get to a service station. When he gets there he asks for an outside electric outlet to “refuel my car.” He offers a quarter for “a nickel’s worth of current,” then all business stops and everybody surrounds the car, stares at the batteries and asks questions.

Mac tells of a tougher challenge. In 1960 he demonstrated an electric truck to post-office officials in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Cleveland Vehicle Company, which at the time was making electric trucks in cooperation with the Electric Storage Battery Company. When Mac took the truck out of the garage, he found that the mechanic had forgotten to plug it in overnight. It had only half a charge. Mac set out anyway, bravely clicking and humming his way to pick up a mailman and a load of mail for a test run over a hilly suburban delivery route. Carefully timing his stops, and resting at the crests of hills, Mac finished the route just as the batteries gave out. But it was still another mile back to the post office. “I’ll never leave a truck; it’s very bad, psychologically, with prospective customers,” he says. He got out, made a show of scratching his head, kicked the tires, and peered under the truck, where there was nothing to be seen but the underside of the floor. He suggested that the mailman hike to the top of the next hill and wait. After a few precious minutes had gone by, the truck had recharged itself enough to move again. Mac picked up the mailman, coasted to the bottom of the hill, and came to within half a block of the post office before the truck died again. “Drive her on in,” the mailman said. Mac said no, he wanted to be sure there was a parking place. This ruse — walking over to the parking lot and back — killed another two minutes. The truck then obediently made it into the lot behind the post office. Mac rushed a cable to its starving connectors. And later, post-office officials ordered five electric trucks, which are in use today in Washington, New York and Miami; more are being considered.

Vintage electric trucks are still used in various cities; their big nickel-iron batteries often last a dozen years. The only manufacturer today in the United States is Paul Hafer, who has a body shop in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where in partnership with the Electric Storage Battery Company, he makes Battronic trucks.

Electric companies themselves are naturally interested in the future of electrics. They would more than double their output if road vehicles went electric. This could cut the rates, but eventually they would have to go up by a quarter to a third for road taxes.

By now I was tempted to give up my odyssey in search of the perfect electric. These rare Henney Kilowatts and delivery vans did not quite fill the bill for a reawakening Sleeping Beauty.

But then I recalled a challenge to the Ford battery that I had seen in the papers. It came from Gulton Industries, of Metuchen, New Jersey, claiming a battery twice as good as Ford’s. So I invited myself down to meet Dr. Leslie K. Gulton. At 65, Gulton is a big, expansive man with a broad smile and the trace of a Viennese accent. That silver-zinc battery, because of the high price of silver, is just a curiosity, he said. The Gulton entry, a lithium-nickel halide battery, will be light in weight — lithium is twenty times lighter than the lead used in present batteries. It could run a small car 150 miles on a charge. he said, and its materials are cheap and available. “With this battery we have vindicated Edison,” Gulton boasts.

Thomas Edison once had a small laboratory here on what later became the Gulton firm’s grounds. Edison, in 1905, told Walter Baker, “If you continue to produce your present quality of electric automobile, and I my present battery, the gas buggy won’t stand a chance.” Nine years later Edison tried to build an electric with Henry Ford, but they failed at it. If perhaps Gulton hasn’t yet quite vindicated Edison, maybe the Ford Company will beat him to it and vindicate Henry.

Gulton says, “Don’t talk about electric, it won’t be electric, it will be the electronic car.” He has many ideas about this car but has no plan to build one — only the battery for it. He suggests that parking meters could be wired to recharge cars; his battery will take a quick charge. But it is still in the laboratory stage. Gulton adds, “If the Government took the interest in transportation on earth that it takes in space, we could have our electronic car, built from the ground up, in six months. There is one Government electric-car project — for travel on the moon !”

Many amateurs have built fairly successful electric-car prototypes. One, designed by an Illinois Institute of Technology graduate student named Marnie Averitt, is called “Sparky.” Priced at $900, it weighs 1,000 pounds and carries an 800-pound load, plus two persons. Six-volt “golfer” batteries run its five-horsepower motor (electric motors need only a fifth to a quarter the horsepower of gasoline engines to develop the same power). Its speed is 30, range 60 miles; the cab opens from the front like a clam.

In Bethesda, Maryland, scientist John Hoke has adapted a two-passenger King Midget car to run on six auto batteries. It goes 40 miles an hour and costs two thirds of a cent a mile to run.

Rules can be broken with the electric, and my head is exploding with all kinds of possibilities: self-service taxi fleets, tiny cars bundled aboard trains for vacations, exchangeable battery packs ready at every corner, highways alive with power imbedded in the concrete. But somehow I’ll have to cool my impatience because for today, anyway, I still cannot buy an electric that will get me to Providence and back.

I’ll be the first one to my electric-car dealer when he opens, but meanwhile I’m killing the time by looking around elsewhere. And I found out there’s this steam turbine no bigger than an office typewriter that could easily outpower a modern car engine. It’s built by a man named Danny Bogni up in Montpelier, Vermont, and all it needs is to have money put into it. Maybe I can get to like a nice sharp, steamy hiss just as well as that monotonous old electric hum. I’m heading north tomorrow.

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