2001 Toyota Prius SedanEnlarge Photo
The automobile has been with us since 1885, but only over the last 50 years have governments started to face up to its ill effects on the environment.
The world's major car markets have mostly now legislated increasing levels of fuel economy and reduced tailpipe emissions not only of gases directly toxic to humans but also of carbon dioxide, a key component of climate change.
Still, green cars have always been part of the market—though they haven't always found long-term sales success.
In chronological order, here's our list of the dozen vehicles we consider the most important green cars over 130 years of automotive history.
It starts with alternative powertrains, proceeds to cars that set design on a specific path, and includes a few that are green simply because they were smaller.
The list is the product of long discussions, and undoubtedly readers will propose others that they feel should have been included. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.
1914 Detroit Electric car, owned by GE scientist Charles Steinmetz, Schenectady, NY, June 2011Enlarge Photo
(1) Early 20th-century electric cars (Detroit Electric et al.)
This is really a group of cars, most of them remarkably similar, and toward the end, many of them made by the same company.
They are the early battery-electric vehicles that from 1890 to about 1910 were entirely competitive with the gasoline and steam powered vehicles of the day.
They often topped out at about 30 miles per hour, but they were considered by far the most civilized, smooth, and comfortable entries in the market—and hence most suitable for ladies to drive.
When Charles Kettering invented the electric self-starter, which arrived on the market in 1912, the superior range and speed offered by energy-dense gasoline soon relegated these electric cars to the sidelines.
The Depression was the final blow, and the last of them had vanished from the market by 1930.
1914 Ford Model TEnlarge Photo
(2) 1908-1927 Ford Model T
Known by a variety of nicknames, the Ford Model T was "the car that put America on wheels," and much of the rest of the world too.
Its rugged, low-compression, four-cylinder engine could reputedly be run on virtually any liquid hydrocarbon, from gasoline to kerosene, and its simplicity taught generations of drivers how to repair their own cars when needed.
More than 15 million Model Ts were built, a record that stood from 1927 until 1972, when it was surpassed by the Volkswagen Beetle.
The Model T was never particularly green, but its influence on cars was profound: its huge popularity ensured that gasoline engines were established as the dominant powertrain for personal vehicles for the next century.
A national and then global fueling infrastructure followed, and the politics of oil exploration, supply, refining, and distribution grew to huge global importance.
1938 Mercedes-Benz 260D at Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart, Germany [photo by Christian Wimmer]Enlarge Photo
(3) 1936 Mercedes-Benz 260D
It wasn't actually the very first diesel car sold—that honor belonged to a French Citroen three years earlier—but the 260D was the first in an unbroken line of Mercedes cars with fuel-efficient diesel engines that continues to the present day.
The engine designed by Rudolf Diesel uses compression alone to combust the fuel-air mixture, meaning it requires much higher compression ratios than spark-ignition engines using gasoline.
That makes diesels sturdier, heavier, and noisier, but they are also more fuel-efficient, delivering more miles per gallon fuel than do equivalent gasoline-powered cars.
Today, the exhaust aftertreatment systems required to clean up the emissions produced by diesels are a major component of their cost.
And their reputation in passenger cars has been damaged, perhaps terminally, by the ongoing Volkswagen diesel emission cheating scandal.
Still, over the past 80 years, diesel cars—offered largely by German makers—have likely saved billions of gallons of fuel.