It’s time to dig into the two-century-long history of electric cars yet again, and this time we’re firmly in the middle of the three-tiered timeline of EVs. If the EV timeline were a burger, this would be the meat patty, and if this was the case, it would be a terrible half-ass meat substitute made with sorghum and sawdust, because this era is the Crap Era. Maybe my favorite of the eras, which should give you ample warning about how bad it was.
This story was originally published on June 21, 2021; it’s being republished for Earth Day.
If we look back at our EV timeline, you can see that the Crap Era started right after the Contender Era, the period of time when EVs were viable contenders for the dominant type of mainstream car, right there with steam and gasoline cars.
Of course, EVs didn’t win. Gasoline cars definitively won that battle, and by the 1920s EVs were almost extinct, and this is the point where the Crap Era begins.
I find the Crap Era fascinating because it was a period of electric vehicle evolution that started with defeat, but the spark was carried on by idealists and visionaries who could see that there just had to be a future for EVs, even if the technology itself wasn’t really ready.
Even though electric motors were well understood and in incredibly wide use throughout the world in this era, doing all sorts of jobs that relied on a lot of power, from drilling holes to moving elevators to crushing things or whatever — electric motors were (and are) everywhere, and form the muscle of most of modern (mostly non vehicular) society.
The reason electric cars of this era were so, well, crappy, was the same issue that still is wrestled with to this day: energy storage. Battery technology just wasn’t that great, with lead-acid batteries being the dominant form, and the low energy density of those batteries limited most Crap Era EVs to golf-cart like performance.
There were many bold attempts made to make the technology of the era work, though—from conversions like the Renault Dauphine into the Henney Kilowatt or the converted Volkswagen Microbus and Chevy Corvair of the first trans-America EV race, to converted VW Rabbits and Chevettes and Hondas—many companies tried to make viable EVs from production cars, but the results were almost always too heavy, too slow, and too short range.
I love this era because of how hard it kept trying; there were a surprising number of low-volume, low-performance, low-everything EVs, and most of them were like plastic toolsheds mounted on a golf cart, but, dammit, there were enough True Believers out there to keep trying.
Some big companies got into the game as well; Briggs and Stratton, who likely made your lawnmower, developed a wonderfully strange EV hybrid, and big, powerful consortiums tried to leverage their might to make EVs happen.=
Even though it was mostly small, struggling companies trying to build and sell EVs in this time period, the Big Boys were investigating the possibilities as well. Ford’s Commuta and the GM XP-512 were both EV projects that gave automakers a chance to try and really explore small city car design and learn how to squeeze the most performance out of a small motor and battery pack.
These were advanced concepts, and a lot of important lessons used in modern EVs were developed in the Crap Era.
And, they did sort of happen. Do you know what the best-selling electric car in America was before the Tesla Model S? It was this amazing little Crap Era doorstop, the Citicar (also called the Comuta):
Six horsepower, 40 miles of range, a body like a fiberglass dumpster, and, later in its life, bumpers like battery-filled diving boards. Objectively, yeah, it kinda sucked, but at the same time there were over 4,000 people willing to trade speed and convenience (and maybe a bit of dignity, depending on your mindset) for the benefits of a quiet, pollution-free EV.
People actually drove these things, and, incredibly, some people still do.
I think the Citicar/Comuta is likely the best poster child of this era, but there’s one other unsung hero from this time: British milk floats.
In the UK, milk was delivered in electric vans called “floats” which were desirable because the early-morning delivery time meant that no noise to wake people up was optimal, and with set, known distances and low speeds, the limited battery tech of the era wasn’t such a big problem.
Milk floats were quietly doing their delivery work on electricity for decades, proving the viability of EVs in specific contexts.
There’s no question that by modern EV standards, the Crap Era was absolutely, well, crap. But it’s because of the dedication of the engineers and enthusiasts of this dark era that the bold modern era, which I’m calling the Tesla Era because you know why, was even possible.