Charged: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Electric Vehicles

The dream of an electric vehicle is more than a century old. Explore the origins of EVs through the lens of one of America's oldest automakers.

"I See My Finish" (1899) by Pittsburgh PostStudebaker National Museum

The Coming Lightning Age: 1882 - 1900

By the 1880s, many Americans were living in a new "lightning age" where industry and technology were transforming everyday life. New electric streetcars connected neighborhoods, while the first "horseless carriages" took to the streets. The age of the automobile had arrived.

Birth of an Industry

While these first cars were mostly experimental and incredibly expensive, they heralded a major shift in how people lived and traveled. By 1900, dozens of companies sprang up to build automobiles. Most models resembled the carriages and buggies they were replacing.

Gas, Electricity, and Steam (1903) by The Automobile Review and Automobile NewsStudebaker National Museum

Birth of an Industry: 1901 - 1913

As a new technology, there were no industry standards yet; electric, gasoline, and steam-powered vehicles were all developed. Electricity, in the form of lead-acid batteries, had many advantages over other experimental "motive forces" like gasoline and steam. 

Battle of the "Motive Forces"

Electric vehicles ran quieter and cleaner than gas cars, and did not require crank-starting the engine. They could also be operational in a fraction of the time it took steam-powered cars to build up pressure. Batteries at the time provided around 30-40 miles on a charge.

Luxury Item

Who was purchasing these first automobiles? Most Americans simply could not afford a car and still relied on horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles, or their feet in the early 1900s. A typical electric car cost around $2,000, a luxury item when most workers made less than $1,000 a year.

"Noiseless, Easy Running" (1903/1904) by Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing CompanyStudebaker National Museum

Studebaker Enters the Market: 1902

By 1902, the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company of South Bend, Indiana had been in business fifty years and was among the world's largest manufacturers of horse-drawn vehicles. Studebaker initially supplied coachwork for other automakers before building its own electrics.

Reaching the Masses

Studebaker was well-positioned in the industry, with a global sales and dealership network. The company  advertised its "noiseless, easy running" electric automobiles in newspapers and trade journals, which often targeted women and professionals, like doctors.

Electric on Roof (1905/1910) by Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing CompanyStudebaker National Museum

Electric Vehicle Testing

Company executives, including J.M. Studebaker, pose for a photo with a Studebaker Electric on the plant's rooftop test track around 1907. J.M. is steering using a tiller instead of a steering wheel, which was more common on gas-powered cars.

Charging an Electric Car (1905/1915) by General ElectricStudebaker National Museum

Charging 101

The lack of charging infrastructure and limited range of early electrics were major drawbacks over gas-powered models. Expensive "rectifiers" could be purchased for home charging, while charging garages, power plants, and battery swaps could be found in major cities.

Electric Coupe (1908/1912) by The Studebaker CorporationStudebaker National Museum

Studebaker No. 15a Electric Coupe

Models with enclosed cabs, like this Studebaker Coupe, were considerably more expensive than open models but protected the car's occupants from the elements. Similar models from other makers even featured a front or rear seat for a chauffeur.

Early Electric Truck (1906) by The Electric AgeStudebaker National Museum

End of an Electric Era: 1914 - 1922

Between 1902 and 1912, Studebaker produced over 1,800 electric passenger cars and trucks. Studebaker's automobile business was growing, especially with its new gas-powered models introduced in 1904, but several factors came together to all but kill the electric car market.

Injured Elephant Coming Through! (1910) by Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing CompanyStudebaker National Museum

Rise of the Model T

Introduced in 1908 Henry Ford's new Model T sold for just $850, less than half the price of the average electric. Likewise, improvements to the gas engine, the electric self-starter, improved roads, and cheaper gasoline removed some of the last advantages electrics had over gas.

Electric Truck on Parade (1905/1915) by The Studebaker CorporationStudebaker National Museum

Resurgence: 21st Century

What has changed? Increasing pollution levels and the environmental movement have lead to tighter regulations and shifted how we think about gas-powered cars. By the 1990s California required automakers to make some vehicles emission-free, driving further research on EVs.

An Electric Future?

With more automakers introducing new EV models and an ever-growing charging infrastructure, the future looks increasingly electric.  Affordability, availability, and changing cultural attitudes continue to make EVs more sensible and appealing. Will your next vehicle be electric?

Credits: Story

Studebaker National Museum

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