HBO has a new series called The Nevers, about a bunch of women with supernatural powers in 1896 London. There’s a complicated plot and lots of characters whose names I forgot immediately and if I’m being really honest, this first episode is a bit of a mess. But the production design is excellent and there’s a fictional 1890s electric car, and it looks pretty cool.
So, without spoiling anything I suppose I can tell you the car was built by Penance Adair who has a supernatural power that allows her to see how energy like electricity, “wants” to flow, move, settle, whatever. This helps her to design and build devices like parasol-tasers and, important for our automotive-brains, electric motors.
In this character’s workshop, we can see what looks a lot like one of the motor assemblies used on the car, with its distinctive ovoid shape and open design:
Since we’re already pointing out motors, let’s take a closer look at this car:
It’s a low-slung three-wheeled thing, vaguely teardrop-shaped in plan, and much like a bathtub from the side. Inside there’s face-to-face seating, much like a number of other cars of this era, like this 1899 De Dion Bouton:
The pair of co-axial motors are mounted way up front, low and just ahead of the transverse leaf spring that handles the front suspension.
There also appears to be some kind of oil-filled dampening system involved as well, with plumbing and check-glasses by each front wheel and a cylindrical reservoir just aft.
Speaking of the front suspension, there’s a crapload of camber going on here:
If I had to make up a reason why this is, I’d say that it’s because the batteries—which I imagine are packed under all of that funny overlapping metal that could sort of act as cooling fins for the batteries—proved to be much heavier than first anticipated, and worked those leaf springs a bit harder than planned, spreading out the wheels.
It looks like the two motors spin a driveshaft under the car, where it must meet some kind of gearbox to turn it 90 degrees, where it then drives a sprocket that spins the rear wheel via a chain.
Here, let’s call it all out:
From the standpoint of design and historical plausibility, I think it’s pretty good! The tires look far too modern, but the rest of the materials feel plausible for the late 1800s, though the material used for the finned part at the front is a little confusing and those shapes seem like they’d be difficult to form from metal of that thickness, especially for a lone builder.
Maybe she had them cast somewhere?
The rest of the body feels plausible, with normal carriage-type construction, likely thin sheet metal or leather over a wooden frame.
I can’t tell what the braking mechanism is—are those wheel discs on there?
Being electric, it makes sense that it has an electric headlamp, and as far as controls and instrumentation goes, all we see is this:
A steering yoke, and one gauge, which, if I had to guess, is likely an ammeter? That would at least give some information about the state of the charge from the batteries, which you could use to make some educated guesses about range. Also, I bet there are some pedals on the floor for acceleration (maybe a rheostat of some kind?) and a pedal for the (cable operated?) brakes.
Overall, it’s an exciting-looking design that, while clearly fictional, is just plausible enough to be something that for the most part could have existed in that era—Which is a lot better than some late 1800s movie cars I could mention.
To illustrate my point, here’s a famous electric car from 1899:
That’s La Jamais Contente, the first car to break the mile-a-minute/60 MPH/100 KPH barrier. It’s about the same general size as the Nevers car, it’s electric, it uses similar tech (lead-acid batteries, electric motors driving wheels via chain drive, leaf springs, etc.) and exhibited similar-feeling performance.
If that existed—which it did—then something pretty close to Penance’s e-trike could have as well.
The part about the car I have trouble with has to do with how it’s introduced—by being launched out of a horse-drawn carriage:
Yeah, that’s a fun way to mix up a Victorian horse-chase, sure, but I’m just not buying it. Where the hell was that car in the carriage? Look, here’s the carriage prior to the violent electric trike birthing:
Where, exactly, is this thing being stored in there? The physical layout just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t mind the idea of the carriage carrying the car, but they should have bulked up the lower part of this carriage just to make it look at least a little plausible.
There’s also one bit of transportation tech in here that at first feels wildly too advanced, until you really see what’s going on. It has to do with the driver of the carriage.
At one point in the horsechase where we first see the trike, one of the big ugly bad guys grabs the driver of the carriage, only to reveal this:
Wait—is this some steampunk robot driving the carriage? I mean that’d be fun, but come on. That I can’t believe. Magic women, sure, but a Level 5 autonomous vehicle using brass and 1896 tech? We can’t even do Level 5 today.
Later, though, we get a bit of a better look at the carriage driverbot:
Ohhhh, now it’s making more sense! It’s really just a periscope, designed to look like a coachman! That’s clever! Here, there’s even a quick glimpse at the other end, inside the carriage:
So, it looks like they can guide the carriage from the inside, via the periscope and, I imagine, some pretty basic levers to pull reigns for the horses.
This would be fine, as horses are semi-autonomous vehicles as it is, and only require basic guidance information. They know how to not run into things already. I cover this in my book, if you’re interested, by the way.
There’s a hint later in the show that more cars will be built, which may be the primary reason I tune in again.
Honestly, if I had my way, this whole show would be about Miss Penance Adair starting the Adair Electrified Motor Carriage works and following it all the way up to the 1980s, when Adaelem Motors was the UK’s largest automaker and was struggling with labor crises and competition from Japan.
The show’s not likely to go that route, but I’m still excited to see some more Victorian EVs.