Electric cars in New York City, circa 1906

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article on the short-lived wave of electricity powered automobiles that were popular in the city almost exactly one century ago.

Starting in 1914, the Detroit Taxicab and Transfer Company built and operated a fleet of nearly 100 electric cabs. Customers would often wait for a smoother, cleaner, more tasteful electric cab, even when a gas-powered cab was already on station.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

Last year I posted a 1906 article from the same newspaper’s archive on an auto show at Madison Square Garden, which discussed electric vehicles in use at the time.

Breweries are still the leading users of motor trucks. The three-ton truck that is ordinarily used will carry fifty half-barrels. As an indication of its utility, it may be interesting to note that one of these will leave a big brewery around New York at 6 o’clock in the morning, make a trip to Coney Island, return at 2 o’clock, and finish a short city delivery before 6 in the evening. With horse-drawn trucks, four horses would be needed to make the trip to Coney Island, and the team would not get back until late at night, while the following day it would be necessary to give the horses absolute rest. Most of the big breweries have their own electric plants and thereby reduce the cost of recharging their electric trucks to about 2t or 30 cents, representing only the actual cost of the fuel. If recharged in an electric garabe, the cost is about $1.25. The Vehicle Equipment Company maintains a large electric wagon garage at Ninth Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street, where over 100 cars in daily use are kept.

The electric wagon can run only 30 to 35 miles on a single charge, and this limited radius naturally restricts the use of the electric wagon for city purposes. With good roads and with its simpler construction, requiring less mechanical work than is needed to keep the gasoline trucks in good condition, the electric wagon has become firmly established as the ideal method for deliveries in large communities. There is little difficulty now in securing capable men to manage them. The manager of one of the large concerns stated that motormen of the surface and subway lines are applying for jobs to drive electric wagons in great numbers. Their familiarity with electric motors fits them admirably for the work, as they can make light repairs and prevent needless damage, elements that enter largely into the economy of the motor commercial vehicle.

I asked then, “Did you know we had electric cars in 1906? Why are they still so scarce in 2006?” A place like New York City does in fact seem like an ideal environment for battery powered vehicles, and you actually see them in use quite a bit in parks or train stations, where speed is no factor, but would it in fact be effective to re-introduce electric vehicles for commercial purposes, much in the same way as described in the 1906 article, but with modern motor and battery technologies?

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2 thoughts on “Electric cars in New York City, circa 1906”

  1. Perhaps. The Tesla Motors company is working on delivering electric cars to the ordinary consumer, and appears to have done it. However, the issue has always been battery life (short), acceleration and speed, cost per mile, and plenty of other issues.

  2. I suspect you’ll find the popularity of electric vehicles a century ago says less about the advantages of electric vehicles than the state of the art of the internal combustion engine.

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