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Gasoline 1, Electric 0: A Brief History
Surprisingly, as far back as 1900, more than a third of vehicles sold were electric vehicles. They were cleaner and quieter than early gasoline cars and the wives of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were often seen at the wheel of one.

For some, the first glimpse of any sort of motorized vehicle came in 1903 when on a "whim and a fifty dollar bet," Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson took the first cross-country road trip in his gas-powered "horseless carriage" from San Francisco to New York City. As he moved eastward, his trip became a national sensation. At the time, there were only 150 miles of paved roads.
 
Horatio Nelson in his car

First Highway image
The first highway (called The Lincoln Highway) was built across the U.S. in 1911. It took another two decades until it was fully paved.

While Edison and Nikola Tesla were arguing over which electric standard (Edison's direct current vs. Tesla's alternating current) to adopt, oil reserves were being discovered in Texas, and Chevron began building gas stations to usher in a new era of personal transportation.Old red gasoline pump

Henry Ford with Model T
By 1913, Henry Ford was the first to mass-produce cars with his popular Model T, and government highway projects began spreading out of the cities into rural America. The whole landscape began remodeling itself around the motorcar.

Over the next 20 years, all the early excitement for electric vehicles was all but buried by cheap, practical gasoline alternatives. After a rocky start, where many Americans called the car the "devil wagon," more and more people — not just the rich — were lining up to own one.

Your Car magazine cover
Lots of cars
By the 1930s, more than 20 million cars were on the nation's roads, and more than half of American families owned one. Gas stations became commonplace — there were more than 200,000 of them by the mid-30s — and massive pipeline projects were moving oil and gas to where it was needed.

Comparison of LA skyline with smog and without smog
Sadly, the electric car had gone the way of the streetcar. It wasn't until the '60s and '70s when air pollution had reached hazardous levels in major U.S. cities (like L.A., pictured above) that the electric vehicle made a modest comeback. Trucks and government delivery vehicles were prime targets for a clean makeover but it was a gesture lost in the shadows of the now colossal dominance of gasoline throughout society.

EV-1 electric cars
California raised the hopes of another electric revival in 1990, when the state ordered carmakers to produce a number of zero emissions vehicles to meet new stringent anti-pollution laws. General Motors enthusiastically rose to the challenge. After several years of development and a reported billion dollars spent, GM produced the first set of EV-1 electric cars in late 1996, grumbling about the expense but proud of the revolutionary car it had built from the ground up.

Clean Air banner in back window of car
The euphoria didn't last. The cars were poorly marketed, customers were leery of having to plug them in, there were all sorts of cost and performance issues over the first set of batteries, and General Motors began to backpedal. The company complained that the regulations and timetable set by California were impossible to meet. Along with several other car companies, GM sued the state to soften the laws and won. The whole electric vehicle project, or environmental lip service, depending on your point of view, was cancelled in 2003.

 
PHOTO CREDITS
 
1903: Horatio Nelson Jackson (driving), Sewall K. Crocker and Bud in the "Vermont." University of Vermont, Special Collections
1911: Lincoln Highway dedication road work, October 13, 1913, Central City, Nebraska. The Lincoln Highway, National Museum & Archives
Gas Pump: Pump from Filling station and garage at Pie Town, New Mexico. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection
1913: The first and ten millionth Ford cars. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
Your Car magazine cover: New York Constructive Publishing Corp. 1925.
1930: Automobile traffic in city street, possibly Detroit, Michigan. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

 
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