MORE DRIVERS WANT TO GO GREEN, so electric vehicles have become something of a hip must-have. And when Tesla announced its £24,000 Model 3 earlier this year, it signaled Elon Musk’s plan: make electric vehicles less luxury and more mainstream. But, actually, EVs have been around for over 150 years — and car collectors are heading to auction houses to snatch them up.
“There is certainly renewed demand for vintage electric vehicles at auction,” says Donnie Gould, Car Specialist with auction house RM Sotheby’s. “There have been numerous obscure manufacturers producing modern electric cars over the last 40 years, though most unsuccessfully. Now that Tesla seems to be thriving, collectors are recalling electric cars from as far back as the turn of the 20th century.”
Indeed, the public’s appetite for petrol-free, rechargeable, planet-saving cars has been on a big upswing.
According to the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental advisory group, the number of EVs on the road in 40 countries hit 1.26 million last year: that’s 100 times the amount of EVs in 2010. That number is only forecasted to go up, as US-based research firm ABI Research predicts that the EV industry will hit $58 billion (£44 billion) in the next five years.
But EVs come with pros and cons. The main pro, obviously, is that they replace emission-spewing fossil fuels with electricity. They’re quiet, and you can just plug your car into a powering pod, never patronising another petrol station again.
But skeptics argue that many cities still lack the countless plug-in stations needed to charge the vehicles — problematic, since EVs can only make it a comparatively small distance before having to re-juice for hours. The Nissan Leaf, for example, has a range of only 105 miles. Plus, they’re expensive, with an EV easily costing close to £40,000. (Though Tesla hopes to make EVs more accessible with that upcoming Model 3, due out next year.)
Still, EVs’ popularity isn’t inching up — it’s rocketing. And that’s triggering a nostalgic look to the past, experts say, in the form of auction sales. Gould says that many early-day EVs have survived to the present, and have frequently been selling well.
But why did electric vehicles exist decades ago? And how popular were they? Back in the early 1900s, companies like Detroit Electric were making early EVs that were all the rage, especially among buyers of a certain socioeconomic class. Gould says “they sold at a price point similar to Cadillacs of the era,” and that “in period, these early electric cars were often purchased by relatively wealthy gentlemen as a second vehicle for their wives.” Gould also says that, at the time, there was a convenience factor: the gas-powered cars back then needed the hand of a skilled mechanic to start and operate, but these early EVs were generally hands—and hassle—free.
Here are some of the wackiest EVs from yesteryear, before Tesla was even a twinkle in Elon Musk’s eye.
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.