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Alternative Propulsion – Electricity

Around the 1880s another type of vehicle – that powered by electricity – was at the peak of its success, not only in Europe but also in America, a success which at the time had no indication of the rapidity with which it was to disappear from the scene, perhaps to reappear 90 years later.

One fact which immediately strikes the student of this period is the large number of names which appear – a fact which is understandable when one realises that the electric car presented far lower problems than d id those driven by steam or internal combustion engines. Its production was also much more suited to small workshops.

Furthermore, it is easy to understand how so many enthusiasts were seduced by the possibility of building such a vehicle. The DC motor was already developed to satisfactory points as was the lead-acid battery, although the latter was, and remains, heavy and bulky. Thus all the basic elements of the electric car were available, and their practical application permitted such vehicles, built in the years between 1881 and the end of the century, to give quite sensational results in terms of speed over short distance. Where the electric vehicle was woefully lacking was in its range, and it was this that caused its death around 1910 and remains its great disadvantage today.

In France, the first to build vehicles of this type on a fair scale was Icantaud, a coachbuilder who was gifted with notable ability. Among other things, fundamental theoretical studies on steering geometry are owed to him, studies still accepted today by motor engineers. By 1881, Jeantaud, benefiting from the previous development of the battery by the Frenchmen Faure and Plante, had taken part in the Paris-Bordeaux race, as did two other constructors, the Englishman, Park, and another Frenchman, Pouchain.

In the years between 1885 and 1890 there took place many experiments with electric vehicles and shortly afterwards, in 1897, machines of this type recorded some sensational results. In England the 'electric tandem' Gladiator-Pingault, covered the flying kilometre in 1 minute 46 seconds, and the 5 miles in 8 minutes 56 seconds. A few months later, on the Seine circuit, Edmond de Parrodil achieved a time of 57.8 seconds for the flying kilometre and the journalist Breyer, in the same year, did the 10 kilometres in 9 minutes 54 seconds, thus -exceeding 60 kph.

Europe 1896-1900 Early Problems

The police authorities, confronted with the first few thousand cars on the dusty roads of the Seine region, were the first to face problems that were soon to arise in other countries.

Even by 1893 the Prefect of Paris had established 7.5 mph as the speed limit within the city walls. Now arose other problems: what was to be the rule of the road, right or left? How was precedence at crossroads to be given? How to identify both vehicle and driver?

This last problem was resolved giving to each Department the serial numbers that it had been given in the regulations of the Ministry of Mines to which body was assigned the job of vehicle registration; this system is still in force today. Another problem was the position of the steering wheel which, at that time, was beginning to replace the tiller. Was it to be placed to the left or to the right – not a simple decision to take, so much so that it continued to be discussed for about 40 years. It was only much later, towards 1908, driving from the United States – where driving on the right was already definitively decided – that the majority of cars had their steering wheels on the left, though there remained many exceptions, as all old motorists will remember. Strangely enough, French quality cars used right-hand steering wheels until fairly recent times, although having the right-hand rule of the road.

In the meantime, the first motor advertisements had made headlines, with an ingenuity and hyperbole that today seems inconceivable.

So far as England is concerned, 1895 saw the founding of a small company manufacturing motor cars, Wolseley, which was to become, years later, one of the several makes of BMC. This event is noteworthy when one considers that the notorious Red Flag Act was still officially in force in Great Britain and was to remain so until the following year, requiring that every motor vehicle should be preceded by a walking man carrying a red flag, which certainly did not create ideal conditions for initiating an automobile factory. Although the law was rescinded in 1896, freedom remained considerably restricted because motorists were still subject to the onerous limit of 12 mph. In 1904, this was raised to 20 mph and remained in force until the end of the First War. In any event, the foundation of Wolseley was an act of courage and was a symptom of the motoring fever which had already infected the British and which stemmed from the other side of the channel.


1 ВМС – British Motor Corporation.

2 Red Flag Act – английский закон 1865 г., предписывающий, что­бы впереди любого средства передвижения шел человек с красным флагом и предупреждал об опасности. По этому закону максимальная скорость в городе была две мили в час, а за городом – четыре мили в час.


We have thus brought the story of the motor car to the beginning of the 20th century.

It is now opportune to look at the motor car of 1900, whose manufacture was spreading rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic, in particular to see what level of technical progress the horseless carriage had achieved in the first 20 years of its life.

So far as the engine is concerned, the most usual layout was to use two cylinders. Several varieties were known at that time, differing often in these details which were necessary to get around competitors' patents. Thus there were inline twins, horizontally-opposed (or flat twins), and vee-twins. Many manufacturers, however, still used the single cylinder — De Dion, for example, was its strong supporter. Even in America, where minds were certainly not closed to technical progress, the single cylinder had its advocates, including Packard. The four-cylinder engine in 1900 was passing from the experimental into the production stage, associated mainly with such French engineers as Forest, designer of experimental multi-cylinder engine (including a six-in-line) or marine applications; Mors, the famous manufacturer of racing cars who built the first practical V4; and Tenting, an ex-driver for Peugeot, who built a large inline four.

Without exception all these had automatic inlet valves, only the achieved by burner, electrical systems being slow to be adopted. The magneto was brought alone at that time by the German, Robert Bosch, and Sims in England did much to ensure its adoption. At that time, also, the Frenchman, Claudel, invented the 'immersion carburettor', in which the jet was below the level of the petrol in the float chamber. Thus the two great aids to really practical and dependable spark-ignition petrol engine were developed together and helped progress greatly. The engine was already mounted forward in nearly every case, hidden by the front-mounted radiator. Even then there was a division in the ranks of manufacturers into those who supported, respectively, air-cooling and water-cooling – a division that still exists today. The steering wheel had already been adopted almost universally.

So far as coachwork is concerned, 1900 was a year of transition from the attitude of the earlier manufacturers, who tried to make the motor car look like the horse-drawn carriage, to that of the innovators, who began to design it from a more rational point of view. Thus around half the vehicles built had wheels of equal diameter, and their number was growing. Pneumatic tyres had almost completely replaced the solid type, though rims were still very similar to those of carts, with thick wooden spokes. Many light cars, however, had lightly-spoked wheels. Manufacturers had varying ideas about coachwork even though the number of types seemed to be diminishing. Some produced only the chassis and its mechanical components, and this practice was to spread until mass production and the all-steel body took over in most important car plants.

Starting the engine was already in many cases by means of a starting handle and this became virtually universal until the electric starting motor, with electric lighting, came along several years later.


1 Packard – «Паккард», название модели американского автомо­биля высокого класса и одноименной американской фирмы, существо­вавшей до 1956 г. Джеймс Уорд Паккард (1863–1928) – основатель фирмы, свой первый автомобиль построил в 1896 г.

2 Peugeot – «Пежо», французская автомобильная монополия, ос­нованная в 1896 году.

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