However, it wasn’t until 1881 that the first electric vehicle to be powered by a rechargeable battery was unveiled. French inventor Gustave Trouve had developed an engine for marine applications – the first practical outboard motor. Trouve, who had taken to cruising the river Seine with friends aboard his electrically powered 17ft (5m) launch, adapted it to power a Coventry-Rotary pedal tricycle.
In November 1881, he demonstrated a working three-wheeled automobile at the International Exhibition of Electricity, held in Paris. Trouve used the second cell design, invented by Gaston Plante, a Belgian, who had found a way to discharge and recharge batteries – thus overcoming the problem of what to do when a battery was exhausted.
A year later, Professors William Ayrton of London and John Perry from Garvagh, County Londonderry, in Ireland, combined their knowledge to create their version of the electric trike. It used ten lead/acid Plante-type rechargeable batteries in series, which supplied 20V to a half-a-horsepower electric motor mounted beneath the plank-like driver’s seat. The vehicle, which had two large spoked bicycle wheels at the front and a small wheel at the rear, was also the first to feature electric lights.
These small bulbs were not, however, to allow anyone stupid enough attempting to drive after sundown to see where they were going, but to illuminate the trike’s instruments, a small ammeter and voltmeter. Its speed was governed by switching between the batteries in series. Ayrton and Perry claimed their rickety contraption was good for a maximum speed of 9mph (14km/h) and could cover a remarkable 25 miles (40km) – depending on the terrain – before the power was exhausted.
Responding to the growing demand for electric propulsion, financier Paul Bedford Elwell and engineer Thomas Parker, formed a company to manufacture rechargeable batteries in Wolverhampton, England, in October 1882. The Elwell–Parker company quickly expanded its range to include dynamos, motors and controllers.
All this was going on three years before Carl Benz unveiled the first automobile to be powered by a gasoline internal combustion engine – an event that ushered in the beginning of the motoring age.
But in Britain development of cars of all kinds had already been dealt a major blow by a piece of government legislation designed to curb ‘excessive speeds’ made possible by new methods of propulsion (mainly steam, although electric vehicles and the internal combustion engine would also fall foul of the notorious Red Flag Act). The Locomotive (Roads) Act of 1865 famously stipulated that a locomotive should be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag as warning. The same person was expected to calm horse-drawn traffic ahead of the locomotive’s appearance.
The act (and its 1878 amendment) also laid down regulations for lights (two at the front, one on each side), a primitive highway code (locomotives to give way to horse-drawn traffic and give as much room as possible to other vehicles) and even created the world’s first official speed limits – 2mph in town and 4mph in open country – punishable by a hefty £10 fine. Large towns and cities were also given special powers to set their own rules on hours of operation and top speeds. This Draconian law would cripple development of new automobiles in Britain until politicians finally saw sense and repealed it in 1896.
Trikes aside, the first primitive electric vehicles were in every way just horseless carriages – just a wooden body riding on wood-spoke wheels and solid tyres. The ‘conversion’ consisted of a battery mounted on the chassis, an electric motor and a means of steering. This hybrid design was far from ideal. The crude suspension and solid tyres transmitted all the bumps and potholes from poorly surfaced roads directly to the chassis, with predictably dire consequences for the fragile battery plates sitting in containers filled with acid.
Worse still, electric vehicles were considerably faster than their horse-drawn counterparts and a carriage chassis would become unstable at high speeds. The advantages of electric propulsion – smoothness and refinement – were entirely negated by the crudity of the design. As all the forces acting on a car do so through the contact patches of the tyres, the adoption of pneumatic tyres (perfected by Irish vet John Boyd Dunlop for his son’s bicycle in 1887) proved a breakthrough in making electric cars more comfortable to drive.
By the time the automobile industry really began to flourish in the 1890s, the electric vehicle appeared to have an unassailable lead. The DC motor and its ancillaries were well-developed thanks to trams, such as the Volk’s Electric Railway, which ran along the eastern seafront at Brighton. Lead-acid batteries, too, were rapidly reaching maturity after more than a decade of commercial development.
Although the battery was still the weakest link in the electric car layout, commercial success would drive research into new materials and better designs. By the turn of the twentieth century, lead-acid batteries were durable enough to be used with confidence in automotive applications.