Despite Thomas Edison’s exhortations to a young Henry Ford that internal combustion was ‘the thing’, the brilliant inventor hadn’t given up on the idea of the electric car. His first effort, built in 1895, was a single-seat three-wheeler – two at the front and one at the back – powered by two electric motors that produced 5 bhp. The design never caught on, not least because the car had to be steered like a boat – a tiller arrangement moved the rear wheel – rather than the easier-to-master front-wheel steering.
Regardless of the design drawbacks, Edison was convinced only a breakthrough in battery technology could make electric vehicles viable. Nevertheless, he was convinced such a breakthrough was achievable and, as he beavered away in West Orange, New Jersey, he forecast: ‘In 15 years, more electricity will be sold for electric vehicles than for light’. To prove the point, Edison’s wife Mina was often seen taking her electric car for a spin running errands and socializing.
By 1903, Edison had created a nickel-iron battery for automotive applications and retro-fitted them to four large touring cars. No doubt mindful of the commercial potential if electric cars were to be successful, Edison became a voluble proponent of electric propulsion. He rightly pointed out how easy they were to drive (‘There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse,’ he said) and how refined the powertrain would seem (although his reference to the ‘terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine’ seemed like hyperbole even back then).
Edison and Henry Ford had become firm friends since their meeting at the Old Manhattan Beach Hotel a few years earlier and the famous inventor still had the motor magnet’s ear. In 1901, The Atlanta Constitution, published an intriguing article about Edison’s plans to collaborate with Ford on an electric vehicle. The inventor told the paper he hoped owners would be able to recharge their cars at plug-in battery stations alongside trolley bus lines. Rather more fancifully, he also hoped batteries could be recharged at home via a small windmill coupled to a generator.
On 16 October 1910, a report in The New York Times by J. R. Anderson Junior revealed:
Two electromobiles equipped with Thomas Edison’s new storage battery have completed their thousand-mile endurance run over the well known ‘ideal tour’. Not only this, but as a side issue they have made seven of the eight mile climbs up Mount Washington, being prevented from continuing to the very top by rain, hail and heavy winds.
The cars ‘of Bailey and Detroit manufacture’ were driven by a two-man crew and carried a selection of tools should the 2.5 bhp motor give trouble and extra tyres. They started their proving run from the Touring Club of America, on Broadway and 76th Street, in New York City. One car took the shore route and the other drove inland.
On the third night, the Bailey reached Manchester, Vermont, where it was confronted with the Peru Mountain, part of the Green mountain range in southern Vermont.
The article said:
The owners of large gasoline cars laughed at the little car when informed by the crew what they were about to attempt, saying that it was an impossible feat to accomplish. Nevertheless they went over in fine shape and arrived in Sprinfield, Vt, the next evening.
In the meantime, the Detroit car was sprinting along the Massachusetts and Maine coasts, from Boston through Lynn to Portsmouth. Both cars eventually met up at the Mount Washington Hotel slightly behind schedule due to delays caused by recharging their batteries because they couldn’t find a plug.
By way of explanation, The New York Times offered:
As one must realize, on this maiden trip through these parts, the electric being practically an unknown type, all conveniences were not at hand for recharging.
Flushed by their success, and the schedule having gone out the window, at Bretton Woods it was decided to depart from the original plan and try for the summit of Mount Washington – the so-called ‘climb to the clouds’. The cars were taken to Jackson, the nearest town capable of charging their batteries, fully charged and taken to Glen, at the foot of the summit. By this time the weather was closing in, so the crews decided to stay in a local hotel and make their attempt the following morning.
As the two vehicles pushed up the following morning, J. R. Anderson Junior described how it felt:
Fancy climbing 6,000 feet into the air, the clouds billowing beneath one the entire time, great banks like ocean breakers rolling in from every direction. The effect was weird in the extreme.
Word had spread about the electric ascent. The manager of the Mount Washington Hotel kept in touch with the summit via phone and posted regular bulletins for excited guests.
If the ascent had started in beautiful weather, their luck was not to hold. Both cars had to contend with driving rain and strong winds as a storm swept over the mountain, forcing them to abandon their attempt to reach the very summit and return to the hotel. The cars had proved a point, however, and were able to complete the round trip to New York in triumph.
Certainly, J. R. Anderson Jnr was convinced that cars using Edison’s new batteries were the future. He wrote:
This trip can safely be said to be merely a forerunner of greater achievements the electromobile is bound to make…. Her big sister, the gasoline car, is always more or less noisy, ‘smelly’, and, as she grows older, inclined to show a great deal of vibration. Not so with the little electric, no cranking, no odour or noise, no thrashing of a reciprocating engine, merely the steady rotary pull of her little motor which, small as it seems, does the work at hand.
This trip… goes to prove that the long-talked-of Edison battery is no longer a myth, but an accomplished fact, not to be scoffed at, but to be regarded with awe and serious interest.
Edison’s battery breakthrough was a development of the nickel-iron cell invented by Waldemar Junger, the Swedish designer who also created the nickel-cadmium battery. Junger had abandoned nickel-iron due to its low efficiency and poor charge retention, but Edison persevered. In 1901, he described nickel-iron as ‘far superior to batteries using lead plates and acid’. He was right, too. The nickel-iron battery he created specifically for transport applications had greater energy density than the lead-acid batteries that were in widespread use at the time. They could also be recharged in half the time and were far more robust – lasting for longer before the charge–recharge cycle took its toll. However, they performed poorly in cold weather (the report of the ascent of Mount Washington briefly mentions the cars’ inability to achieve Edison’s claims of a 100-mile (160 km) range, which were put down to the poor climatic conditions) and, initially at least, were more expensive.
Edison spent $1.7 m developing his new batteries and building a 200,000 ft2 (18,000 m2) factory to make them. Although take-up for cars was slow, the new cells were embraced by commercial manufacturers looking for a robust battery that didn’t give trouble. They were used in battery-operated trams, trucks and for lighting railroad cars. Later, they were widely used in the US Navy’s submarines because they gave off no toxic fumes – something for which Edison received the Distinguished Service Medal.
One of the first cars to use the Edison battery was the Detroit Electric, built by the Anderson Carriage Company, which was owned by a consortium of rich businessmen. As an amusing aside, the Detroit Electric is said to have given Walt Disney the inspiration for Grandma Duck’s car.
The Edison nickel-iron battery was a costly upgrade over the standard lead-acid battery and only the wealthiest customers could afford it. The batteries did, however, have longevity on their side. The durability rating of nickel-iron batteries is between 30 and 50 years. Reports of the vehicle’s range vary from 45 miles (72 km) to a review that claimed to have extracted a highly improbable 211 miles (340 km) out of one.
Intrigued by the possibilities of electric cars, Ford bought a Detroit Electric for his wife, Clara, who complained she couldn’t start a Model T engine using its hand crank. By all accounts Clara was delighted. She used her electric car for commuting and visiting the family farm in Dearborn. Although Edison’s batteries were supposed to offer the holy grail of electrics – the 100-mile (160 km) range – Ford played safe and installed a charger for his wife’s car at the farm, despite it being a mere 10 miles (16km) from the main Ford home in Highland Park.
Ford also bought Edison a Detroit Electric car as a Christmas present. (This presented the Anderson Carriage Company with a PR windfall it couldn’t ignore and within months it was advertising the Detroit Electric as the car of choice for both Ford and Edison.) Ford believed Edison’s batteries would be the ideal choice for the Model T and is said to have loaned the inventor $1.2 m – a down payment on the 100,000 batteries he would need for his new car. Ford and Edison also agreed to work on an electric starter system, similar to the one Carles F. Kettering had already created for the Cadillac company in 1912.
By 1914, The Wall Street Journal reported that Ford was sufficiently interested in Edison’s ideas to be examining the possibility of building a low-cost electric vehicle. He had even drawn up plans for a battery factory in Detroit and told reporters it would be managed by his 21-year-old son, Edsel.
On 14 January, The New York Times carried more details of the plan and quoted Ford as saying:
Mr Edison and I have been working for some years on electric automobiles which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.
According to Ford Richardson Bryan in his book, Friends, Families and Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the cars would be powered by Edison-designed batteries, which would weigh around 405 lb (183.7 kg). The entire car would weigh around 1,100 lb (495 kg) – around 100 lb (45 kg) less than the famous Model T – and, unsurprisingly, would have a range of approximately 100 miles (161 km) on a single charge and a top speed of 25 mph (40 km/h). The asking price would be $600 (only $50 more than the Model T) – or the equivalent of four months pay for the average Ford assembly line worker.
At Ford’s bidding, a test bed design – little more than a basic chassis, a battery storage compartment, a rear mounted motor, a seat and a steering mechanism – had been built the year before by Alexander Churchward, who was Vice President of Gray & Davis Inc., of Boston, and a keen advocate of electric transportation. The motor was the product of Detroit electrical engineer Fred Allinson who also did most of the proving work. Despite Edison’s high hopes, the batteries proved problematic, not least in how to accommodate their weight. Churchward’s design placed the 400 lb (181 kg) batteries beneath the driver, thereby keeping the centre of gravity as close to the ground as possible.
A second experimental car was built the following year using the Model T’s chassis, suspension, steering and a worm-drive rear axle. The main battery pack once again sat beneath the driver’s seat. However, in a bid to reach the fabled 100-mile (160 km) range, extra cells were fitted ahead of the driver, where an internal combustion engine would normally be sited.
The second car was largely the work of Eugene Farkas, Ford’s Hungarian engineering partner who had developed the Model T’s chassis. Indeed, the Model T was so versatile that it was often pressed into service as the basis for development hacks of all kinds. As well as the electric car, Ford used Model T components for early tractor designs.
Throughout 1914 rumours circulated that Ford’s next big thing would be an electric car. Henry was said to be looking at buying an electricity-generating plant in Niagara Falls and scoping out potential sites in Detroit for a bespoke factory that would manufacture his new car. Edison, in an interview with Automobile Topics in May, added to the rumours when he confidently predicted: ‘Mr Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of the new electric’. Although he was rather vague about the on sale date, outwardly at least, Edison remained confident. ‘Mr Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business, so it will not be long,’ he said.
Behind the scenes, however, it appears the project was struggling. Although the car was a reality – although it may not have progressed to a production-ready state, as no photos exist of it fitted with bodywork – the engineers were frustrated by Edison’s batteries. The 100-mile (160 km) range was out of reach. Swapping the nickel-iron cells for lead-acid just left them with another headache: the car became too heavy. When Ford found out his engineers had junked Edison’s batteries he was furious and laid down strict instructions that only Edison’s batteries were to be used.
As time dragged on – and the internal combustion engine went from strength to strength – it became obvious the tide had turned against electrics.
Edison’s hope, that electric cars and trucks would have the city streets to themselves, while the dirty, noisy internal combustion engine would be used for long-distance duties, began to look like a forlorn hope. The Kettering electric starter had made internal combustion engines as convenient as battery-powered motors. Worse, the discovery of large oil reserves in North America had helped create a dependable infrastructure of petrol filling stations. The widespread availability of petrol also made it cheap. Running an internal combustion engines hundreds of miles was a simple matter of stopping for fuel and filling up.
Outside of one or two cities, no such infrastructure existed for electric cars and, short of swapping out flat batteries for newly charged ones, it was still impossible to travel more than relatively modest distances in them. For all their smoothness and refinement, the electric car hadn’t advanced much beyond the early Electrobats of Morris and Salom nearly 20 years earlier.
Ford’s own Model T had opened people’s eyes to the potential of the internal combustion engine – there would be no going back.
Despite not wishing to fall out with his great friend Edison, Ford reluctantly pulled the plug on the electric car project. Did the man who did so much to popularize the internal combustion engine really ever seriously think about an electric alternative? Or did he simply toy with the idea to please his friend Edison? If the electric project was a ruse it was an expensive one. Ford invested $1.5 m in research and development before concluding that the electric car didn’t have a future – a huge amount of money at the time.
The work wasn’t entirely without merit, however, as it led to Ford’s adoption of the self-starter and electric lighting. And anyway Henry Ford was now America’s leading industrialist thanks to the runaway success of the Model T. By 1918, half of all the cars on American roads were Model Ts. This incredible success had driven down the price to less than half the price of even the cheapest electric.
The threat of the Model T had forced electric car manufacturers to reappraise their methods. Some were content to occupy an expensive (albeit rapidly shrinking) niche market but one or two tried to meet Ford head on – slashing prices to the bone.