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January 28, 2011

News & Features

Electric cars may be a new trend, but the concept is decades old

The Associated Press

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Electric cars are no new concept. Top left: A 1909 Baker Electric (owned by comedian Jay Leno). Top right: In 1959, Renault sold the Dauphine Henney 72 volt electric car in the U.S. Bottom center: In December, the all-electric Nissan Leaf began rolling out to its first customers.

With the federal mandate that automakers' fleets average 35 mpg by 2020, many manufacturers are turning to electric and gas-electric hybrid cars as a solution.

This may seem new and cutting edge, but, in reality, both ideas are as old as the automobile itself.

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The 1988 Honda Prelude was said to be the first car with four-wheel steering. However, the 1917 Jeffery Quad also had the technology. (Honda)

Electrics
In the early 20th century, when cars were powered by numerous types of fuel, electric cars outsold gasoline-powered cars. They were quieter, smoother and easier to operate. Refueling was as simple as plugging in.

Popular brands included the Baker Electric (1899-1916), the Rauch & Lang (1905-1928) and the Detroit Electric (1907-1939). Henry Ford's wife, Clara, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric rather than a Model T.

This wasn't unusual; electric cars were seen as women's cars. The White House had them in its fleet for first ladies through the early 1920s.

Clara Ford's car had an 80-mile range. If that doesn't sound like much, consider that the forthcoming 2011 Nissan Leaf will go only 20 miles farther before needing to be recharged. Not much of an advance in a century.

Hybrids
Similarly, the gas-electric hybrid is hardly a new idea. It was attempted many times, from the 1905 Gas-Au-Lec to the 1928 Gas-Electric, an experimental taxicab built for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co.

Hybrids didn't merit much consideration for a simple reason: If you add batteries and an electric motor, you add weight. The more weight, the more power needed to move the vehicle. The more power needed, the more fuel used.

Now that cars are heavily computerized, they can expertly determine when the gas motor should run and when it shouldn't for greatest efficiency. This is something mechanical controls can't determine.

Other technologies
In the late 1980s, the Honda Prelude sports car gained notoriety for its four-wheel steering. Car magazines dubbed it a first. It wasn't.
During World War I, the Thomas B. Jeffery Co. -- which later became Nash before merging with Hudson to become American Motors -- built the 1917 Jeffery Quad, a four-wheel-drive truck with four-wheel steering. The U.S. government used it during the war.

Other ideas took decades to become commonplace. Consider front-wheel drive: While it was made famous by Cord, and later the Oldsmobile Toronado, the front-wheel-drive car was invented in Clintonville, Wis., by Otto Zachow and his brother-in-law William Besserdich in 1908. Their car, the F.W.D., hit the market in 1910.

Similarly, most car engines today feature overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Such features can be found on cars made by Stutz and Duesenberg in the 1920s and '30s.

It's not that these weren't great ideas. In some cases, the technology available at the time prevented these features from becoming commonplace, or other technologies proved superior. For other ideas, it was a matter of cost versus need. For instance, four valves per cylinder proved an excellent idea once fuel economy became a prime concern.

So before you fall for the "newest thing," remember: There is nothing new under the sun. It merely gets repackaged.

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