The Nissan Leaf: A Nod to the First Electric Cars of 100 Years Ago

The New York Times' front page today featured a story about the fact that in December, Nissan will be releasing the Nissan Leaf, the first all-electric car from a major auto company.

Today's purchasers, who are raking in the perks for trying out this energy-efficient car that will not pollute the air since it will have zero tailpipe emissions, might be surprised to learn that one hundred years ago the electric car was the preferred vehicle for both women and doctors.

By the early 20th century, cars with an electric motor were a logical outgrowth of the recently designed electric motors for locomotives and omnibuses. The Anderson Carriage Company in Detroit got into the car business by making automobile bodies, and in 1907 they decided to put together the whole car including an electric motor, calling their new model the Detroit Electric. This car went on to become the most popular and long-lived electric vehicle to be sold in the United States. (Click here to see photos of these cars.)

Just as electric cars today, the electric cars of the early twentieth century were powered by a rechargeable battery. Drivers reportedly could drive 80 miles (130 km) between battery recharging sessions. The top speed was about 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), and this was adequate for city driving. The Nissan Leaf will go a little farther--about 100 miles--between charges, and we will assume that they will have a top speed of more than 20 m.p.h.!

The biggest issue with the early electric cars was the price. The Detroit Electric sold for a base price of $2650, and as of 1911, a longer-lasting Edison nickel-iron battery was available for an additional $600. (In 1912, a Ford Model T touring car cost a mere $690.) The Nissan Leaf is retailing for $32,780 but today's purchasers are receiving $7500 tax credits from the federal government as well as additional incentives in the form of rebates and free parking, depending on the buyer's home state.

The higher-priced car offered advantages that were not standard in that day. Some electric cars featured closed cabs for the riders, which must have made them much more comfortable, but the real advantages were convenience and reliability. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the only way to start a gasoline-fueled engine was via a hand crank. Cranking a car was hard work and could be dangerous. The crank sometimes sprang back unexpectedly (broken wrists occurred), and if the driver planned to start his own car, he had to crank it and then leap into it before the engine stalled.

Those who could afford them drove electric cars. Doctors (remember reading about doctors who made house calls?) needed cars that were easy to start and reliable, and the wives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. all owned Detroit Electrics. An article by Christopher Gray in The New York Times (6/14/09) about mansions and their private garages in Manhattan at the turn of the century notes that Andrew Carnegie, who built his mansion at 91st and Fifth Avenue in 1902 (now the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum) had a three-story Georgian-style "automobile house" next door with space for five electric cars, with three charging panels.

So why didn't electric cars catch on? According to Harold Evans in his book, They Made America, the success of the gas-powered automobile came about because Henry Ford, who created the first mass-produced automobile that could be priced so that it could be sold to more people, had received a push from none other than inventor Thomas Edison. In 1896 Ford was introduced to Edison as a fellow who had made a gasoline-powered car. Edison was said to have told Ford to keep at what he was working on--that electric cars were doomed because they had to remain near power stations. Edison noted that a gas car that carried its own power plant (a gasoline engine) offered more promise.

Detroit Electric cars continued to be built until 1939 but sales took two big plunges... one in the 1920s, as gas-powered cars caught on, and another in 1929 when the stock market crashed. As for electric starters that eventually replaced hand-cranking, these weren't added to most cars until the 1920s, though the first car to have an electric starter was built in 1912; it was a Cadillac.

So bring on the Nissan Leafs.... Will this car be the beginning of a lasting trend? We'll have to wait and see.

For more information about early days in the the auto industry (for example, a 1909 Transcontinental Auto Contest), visit here.