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Tesla is the most well-known all-electric car manufacturer in the world today. But did they invent the electric car or just pioneer it?

Tesla is not the first electric car. In fact, the earliest known electric cars date back to the 1830s. But why weren’t they available for so long? A mix of politics, design limitations, and cheap gas engines held back electric cars for a century.

In this article, we’ll cover the history of electric cars, along with where Tesla stands in the overall story. We’ll also go over why it took the automotive industry over 150 years to bring electric cars from the niche market to a practical alternative to conventional gas cars.

We sourced the information used in this article from reputable historians and automobile experts, along with information available from Tesla itself.

Table of Contents

When Were Electric Cars Invented?

Electric cars have been around almost as long as gasoline-powered automobiles. This may come as a surprise—but electric cars were once a viable alternative. This is because, in the early days of gasoline cars, engines were clunky, unreliable, and difficult to control.

The first electric car was developed sometime in the 1830s. This unsophisticated vehicle wasn’t much more than a novelty, but it worked. Electric cars first became practical in the 1880s, when batteries, motors, and switches were advanced enough to propel a vehicle more than a few yards.

Around 1900, Thomas Edison began experimenting with improved electric car batteries. At this time, the majority of cars were powered by gasoline, but there were numerous competitive steam-powered cars and electric vehicles. Though gas was on top, the future of automobiles was, by no means, set in stone at this point.

At the turn of the century, cars were an expensive luxury for the rich and powerful. Most people had never even seen a car before, but that was about to change.

Why Gasoline-Powered Cars Took Over

Before the 1910s, nobody knew what medium would power the world’s consumer cars. Steam, electricity, and gasoline were all viable options with production models available, and electric cars were by far the cleanest and easiest to maintain.

But then Henry Ford came along with his Model T. Just a few years earlier, Ford built his first gasoline-powered engine out of plumbing parts and ran it on his kitchen counter. Ford, who admired gasoline engines for their power-to-weight ratio and low cost, chose a four-cylinder version for his first major production vehicle.

And unlike all other cars (including electric cars), the Ford Model T could be manufactured and sold for less than one year’s salary. At this point, the game was up, and gasoline cars dominated.

Fast forward a few years. Normal Americans have a car that they can actually afford, and millions cough up the $345 cash payment required to buy a brand new car. Within a few years, millions of gasoline-powered Ford cars are on the road.

And with millions of new cars comes the need for thousands of new gas stations, oil refineries, parts depots, and auto shops with equipment to repair gasoline engines. If you were an investor in 1919, where would you put your money? Into electric car charging infrastructure of gas stations?

At the time, most of America was still un-electrified. But oil refineries were everywhere, and all you need to build a gas station is a shed and some vertical hand pumps. So, in a time when electrical energy was still in its experimental phase, the clear choice was gasoline.

Re-Emergence of Electric Cars

Electric cars emerged again in the 1990s thanks to some innovative thinking in the auto industry. The need for alternative fuels became clear during the oil crisis of the 1970s, though it took engineers a while to catch up.

Cars were more complex than they were in the 1900s, so batteries and control systems had to be designed fresh from the ground up. The result was the innovative and excellent General Motors EV1, which was produced from 1996 to 1999.

Industry Suppression of Electric Cars

By the end of the 1990s, the results of GM’s limited-production experiment were in—electric cars were a smash hit and a huge success with everyone who tried them.

So GM rounded up all the beloved EV1s and had them destroyed.

But why did GM kill its first electric car and the first commercially successful electric car in decades? At the time, GM decided that the car couldn’t be profitable. And other automakers, like Ford, colluded with each other in the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulating agency to allow automakers to replace electric car production requirements with low-emission vehicles.

So, for the time being, it looked like all we’d get is natural gas and hybrid vehicles. In 1999, it seemed as though electric cars were dead.

Tesla’s First Practical Cars

Then Tesla appeared in 2004 and offered its first production Roadster model in 2005. This was one of the first decent production electric cars offered in America

The Roadster was an excellent electric car, but it only served a niche top-dollar market. It had just two doors, a limited range, and virtually nothing to offer families and regular commuters.

That remained the case through 2009. All the while, engineers at Tesla were designing a host of new vehicles to be ready for the company’s initial public offering (IPO) in 2010.

That year, Tesla introduced the Model S. This vehicle was a beautiful sedan with four doors and excellent cargo space—along with an increased range and driver comforts. It was all-electric, which was in stark contrast to the hybrids available at the time.

Some argue that it was the first electric car to cross from ‘niche’ into the realm of practical vehicles, and it was the first Tesla that many Americans ever saw in daily use. The Model S marked a new chapter in Tesla’s history and brought it from a company that makes zippy toys for the rich to a company that makes efficient and affordable cars for the average person.

Was Tesla The First Electric Car?

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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