Electric Cars Are Not Coming; They're Here (In 1974...)

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We've all heard the stories about how electric cars were set to take over at the turn of the last century (before ironically being killed by the electric starter motor), and at least once over the last four decades too.

Now they're really here, and the fact that many major manufacturers are now investing heavily in the technology, suggests they're here to stay.

Nevertheless, it's still interesting to re-visit some of the claims made in previous years, like those made by the editor of Industry Week in 1974.

1974 found itself in the midst of the energy crisis, and America joined the rest of the world in frantically scrambling for more efficient cars as gas prices rocketed.

It was a decade in which the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit made names for themselves, and also when the last heavy wave of electric vehicles started to hit the road.

"The best available can rarely go 100 miles at 50mph," wrote James Overbeke, Resident Editor at Industry Week that year. In this respect, times have changed little. Many electric cars hitting the market still go around 100 miles, provided they stick to lower speeds. However, modern electric cars also carry more weight and offer more performance, just as modern combustion-engine cars do.

"Also," wrote Overbeke, "they require 5- to 7-hour periods on the recharger". Again, little has changed there, though on 220-240V grids electric cars are cutting down charging times, and fast chargers bring that time down even further.

Overbeke's assertion that most charging is done at night still stands true too--it's still the best time for energy companies to supply power, when demand is low, and it's also cheapest for EV users.

At the time, many were claiming that "high-density batteries are just around the corner"--another statement that still rings true, though technology has certainly moved on, and now we're often using more energy-dense, longer-lasting and more compact lithium-ion batteries, than the lead-acid ones that prevailed in the 1970s.

The final prophecy? "Of course, the real glamor item is the battery-powered urban automobile".

Well, perhaps we'd not go as far as saying they're glamor items now, but urban electric vehicles may still play a large part in bringing the technology to a true mainstream. Overbeke notes that delivery vans, buses, taxis and similarly city-bound vehicles may also be suitable.

Without as many of the range and recharging issues of larger, quicker and longer-distance electric cars, they can be cheaper--and making them cheaper potentially means a greater audience.

Whether that audience will be in the United States or not is open to debate, but in Europe the urban electric car could take off in a big way--starting with the Renault Twizy, with vehicles like Opel's RAK-e, Volkswagen's Nils and Audi's Urban Concept potentially on the way.

You can read Overbeke's original 1974 article here (pdf file). It's a fascinating insight into the industry nearly 40 years ago--and it's equally interesting to be a part of the modern day industry's movement towards EVs.


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Comments (14)
  1. I didn't know much about EVs in 1974, but I remember waiting in long lines with my dad just to get gasoline. That is something people should have learned more from.

  2. It's funny how quickly people forget things when the gas prices fall again!

  3. It seems like the price of gas only has to drop five cents for people to stop caring, just as long as its cheaper then the last time they topped off.

  4. Battery economics aside, I would argue that the Model S, with the first delivery due in 20 days, 11 hours,and 4 minutes, will be a watershed event with respect to the ability of the electric
    vehicle to not only equal, but to surpass the ICE vehicle in every facet of the driving experience. THAT will be the car, in my humble opinion, that persuades the driving public that electric cars are not simply overgrown golf carts. I can hardly wait for the first auto magazine comparo test of that car against the gas powered opposition.

  5. The Model S seems like the only electric car that is poised to change the worlds perception of what an electric cars is. It should also put the entire automotive industry on notice, a little EV startup in California is about to surpass them all.

  6. There was some griping amongst those who had early reservations for lower end, shorter range Model S's when they learned that Elon decided that the first batch of cars would be high end, 300 mile high performance versions. Now we can see the wisdom of that strategy - hit them with your best stuff right off the bat. That's smart. Very smart.

  7. Of course, it is not only the best stuff, but the priciest stuff which may have been a more significant factor in Elon's decision.

    However, it will be nice to not have reporters screaming about the limited range. At 300 miles, the gut reactions will probably be that range is a non-issue.

  8. I still think the Opel RAK-e is an electric worth waiting for and I was hoping it would come to America. Why aren't they producing these vehicles? It isn't Detroit's big three stopping the production is it until they get some of that big oil money paid back? I think the big three is holding off on producing electric cars because they do not want to do anything to make our black president look good.

  9. I hope the the RAKe won't compete against the EN-V

  10. both coda and zipcar have been selected to the good project from ibm


  11. NYC had electric cars,trolleys and buses in the 1890s.

  12. the electric car pre-dates the gas car. it was not until rockefeller realized that he could sell his oil in gas cars that oil bought out that industry.

    the steam car pre-dates the electric car.

  13. And, as the article states, the fact that the electric starter motor allowed people to hop into a car and press a button rather than stand outside breaking their thumbs on a crank handle.

  14. but had they wanted, the electric starter motor could have been placed in an electric vehicle.

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