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What Killed Electric Cars? The Electric Motor, 100 Years Ago

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1912 Cadillac Touring Edition

1912 Cadillac Touring Edition

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Ever felt a bit cranky in the morning?

Chances are, it's not for quite the same reason as it would have been for your great grandfather. Because originally, "cranky" was what people called you if you'd become flustered from trying to hand crank your recalcitrant automobile.

But in 1912, that all changed when Cadillac released the 1912 Touring Edition. Ironically, none other than the electric motor itself ended up partly responsible for the original downfall of electric cars.

Before Cadillac's electric starter, getting your car running wasn't exactly an easy process.

As engines got larger it took a lot more effort to start them, resulting in bruises, and even broken bones when the motor occasionally kicked back violently.

If you were really unlucky and hadn't set the right combination of gears and levers to a "neutral" position, then you could even run yourself over when the engine fired. No wonder people got cranky.

Together with Charles F. Kettering, the inventor of the electric starter, Cadillac founder Henry M. Leland worked to incorporate the starter into his cars.

And as Cadillac points out, it was a pivotal point in the early days of motoring - for the first time, it allowed the fairer sex to start their own cars, and Cadillac soon incorporated women into their advertising - not just as passengers, but as drivers too.

Combined with low gas prices, this new, easier method of starting your car made gasoline cars cheaper and easier to drive, allowing them to dominate a market they'd previously shared with electric and steam vehicles.

Cadillac has subsequently been responsible for several more innovations, including the fully-enclosed car body, the V8 engine, synchromesh transmission, and lately, night vision and Magnetic Ride Control.

It's taken the best part of a century, with the advent of modern lithium-ion battery cells, which increased energy density by a factor of four over traditional lead-acid cells, for electric cars to regain their early popularity.

And just as the electric-starting Cadillac and its ease of use helped the popularity of internal combustion, the simplicity of battery-powered vehicles is now an attractive feature for the people who drive them.

What Cadillac's pioneering invention goes to show though, is that there's one component that no modern car could really live without, be it gasoline or electric - the electric motor.
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Comments (5)
  1. You know I found out some thing funny in my neighborhood. In my neighborhood there are several homes built between 1900 and 1915, they were built out of concrete block in an effort to prevent car fires from burning down the houses. Gasoline cars caught fire so often back then that they actually had to start either constructing houses out of concrete block or simply build the garage away from the house.
     
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  2. You may want to re-check that [story]. It is getting a bit of a tale as in "a tall tale". ;)

    1. Houses had been made with stone and brick for some time, so concrete added nothing new as a fire retardant.

    2. Gasoline cars catching fire is misleading and doesn't tell the story.

    Peace
     
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  3. No this is fact, back around 1912 this area was remote so extra precautions were taken because there was no fire department close enough. And I'm not stupid I'm well aware that houses have been built out of brick and stone but in my area at the time wood homes were more common for the average family.
    1. Not all areas are the same.
    2. Yes there were fire issues with early cars, I've actually worked for a car museum so Ive read about the fires I didn't take someone's word for it.
     
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  4. Around the turn of the century, gasoline had not taken hold yet; that came years later.

    Hint: headlights; originally called headlamps. There is a reason why they were called that.

    Peace
     
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  5. I know that headlamps had to be hand lit, got any real information? The museum I worked at specialized in early brass cars.
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