The past and the current

Neville Digby's 1904 Baker Electric, one of only six left in the world. Photo: NEVILLE DIGBY
Neville Digby's 1904 Baker Electric, one of only six left in the world. Photo: NEVILLE DIGBY

Electric cars are the next big thing in motoring, but as Tom Rawcliffe writes, that's not for the first time.

International Drive Electric Week this week puts the spotlight on a new breed of sleek, zero-carbon cars from the likes of Nissan, Hyundai, BMW and Audi.

But while this new age of lithium-ion travel heralds a radical shift in transport fuels, electric vehicles themselves are nothing new. In fact, they've been around, in one form or another, for nearly 200 years.

The first documented attempts at building a vehicle driven by electric power were in the early 19th century, particularly during the 1820s and '30s.

The pioneers of electric-powered automobiles were a diverse lot.

The line-up reads like one of those "walks into a bar'' jokes: a Hungarian priest, an American blacksmith and a Dutch professor were among some of the trailblazers experimenting with battery-powered transport technology during the period.

Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is generally credited with inventing the first electric car.

At some point between 1832 and 1839, he strapped a single-use battery and motor on to a coach, creating what has been described as a "crude electric carriage''.

His invention was one of a number of developments that would serve as inspiration for later breakthroughs.

From the late 1850s, advancements in the field of battery technology made the electric vehicle a more viable invention.

An Edison electric bus, photographed in Christchurch in 1948 that provided a service south to...
An Edison electric bus, photographed in Christchurch in 1948 that provided a service south to Dunedin. PHOTO: EDISON ELECTRIC BUS, CHRISTCHURCH. HEAD, SAMUEL HEATH, D 1948 :NEGATIVES. REF: 1/1-007419-G. ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY, WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND. /RECORDS/22350014

Further improvements in battery capacity and storage over the following decades meant that electric vehicles could run more efficiently for longer periods of time. They could also pick up a bit of speed if required.

In 1898, the first officially recognised land speed record was set by a French race car driver in a Jeantaud electric car. Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat completed a 1km run in 57 seconds, giving an average speed of 63.13kmh.

In the 1890s, the age of the automobile dawned and it was not clear whether gasoline, electric or steam-powered vehicles were going to win out, as all three competed for market dominance.

A brief boom saw electric vehicles actually outsell all other types of cars in 1899 and 1900.

Electrics had the advantage over their steam and gasoline competitors when it came to smell, noise and the smoothness of the ride.

Electrics didn't require any cranking, were clean and quiet, and often came with elaborate furnishings. Consequently, companies saw them as vehicles for women and marketed them accordingly.

Production reached its peak in 1912. Soon after, Henry Ford's mass production of internal-combustion engines meant that petrol-powered cars became noticeably cheaper.

The electrics industry had largely run out of juice by the mid 1930s.

Little has been made of electric vehicles in New Zealand's past, and it seems clear that the uptake of electrics was small in comparison to Europe and North America.

Despite that, there were certainly some around, and the 1910s and '20s seem to have been the heyday.

Many businesses and local councils used battery-powered automotives for transporting goods. The Christchurch City Council, for example, had a fleet of about 200 at its peak.

The vehicles would be charged up overnight at the council's electricity department garage, ready the next morning for another long day of work.

Based in Dunedin, the New Zealand Express Company was a nationwide freight company that used electric lorries. In the early 1920s, they ran advertisements in the Otago Daily Times proclaiming their model of British-made Orwell lorries to be "the most economical electric lorry built''.

On the whole, electric vehicles appear to have been less popular in Dunedin.

Much of the reason for this could be put down to the terrain, which wouldn't have lent itself as kindly to electrics as the flat open expanse of Christchurch.

But despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm for electric vehicles in early-20th-century Dunedin, recent times have seen the city embrace them in an impressive fashion.

An Enfield Electric City Car in the Dunedin showroom of Amalgamated Batteries in 1976. The car...
An Enfield Electric City Car in the Dunedin showroom of Amalgamated Batteries in 1976. The car was promoted as a quiet, pollution free vehicle with a range in excess of 50km in the city and almost 100km on the open road, on one eight-hour charge. Inspecting the car at a city garage are the general manager of Amalgamated Batteries, Mr E.S. Clash (left) and the quality controller, Mr G.R. Welsh.PHOTO: ODT FILES

In terms of per capita uptake of electrics, Dunedin is second only to Auckland.

Alistair Gilmour, the owner of Dunedin's Gilmour Automotive, started importing and stocking electric vehicles in August 2015.

Initially the cars were a sideline for his workshop business, but things got busy and the workshop has recently taken a back seat to the sale of electrics.

Gilmour said the uptake of electric cars in Dunedin had intensified in the last 18 months.

"In 2015 there was probably only two or three [electric] cars in Dunedin. I don't know what there would be now; there would be a of couple hundred probably.''

He puts the recent growth in uptake down to a keen community of local owners who have worked hard to spread the word and promote the technology in the city.

Vehicle owners would take their friends for rides around Dunedin, surprising passengers when the cars made it up the hills with ease.

"They'll try them [electric vehicles], and then they'll take a few more people for a few more rides and the whole thing just sort of snowballs,'' he said.


Christchurch man Neville Digby is the proud owner of a 1904 Baker Electric. The car is originally from California; Digby brought it into the country five years ago.

It is one of only six left in the world, and would have cost $US2000 back in its day, according to Digby. Ford was soon selling his Model Ts for $US500.

Baker was the oldest and largest manufacturer of electric motor cars in the world at the time, and supplied electric vehicles to the women of the White House, Digby says.

At the time, they claimed the Baker Electric would do 260km on a single charge and that a special model could do 130kmh, but Digby says he has never achieved either.

His interest in electric vehicles was initially sparked in the 1980s through his involvement in restoring a 1918 Walker Electric truck belonging to his workplace, Orion New Zealand.

The truck was the last of its kind, and despite being unfriendly to drive and weighing in at 2500kg, "it virtually became our baby'', he said.

Digby will soon retire to Wanaka. The Baker Electric, of course, will go with him, perhaps becoming a regular feature around town.

The latest model of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, unveiled this week. PHOTO: REUTERS
The latest model of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, unveiled this week. PHOTO: REUTERS

Electric vehicles will also be on display in Dunedin this coming week, as the city plays host to multiple Drive Electric Week events.

Drive Electric Week is an international event established to celebrate electric-powered transport and increase awareness of the technology. Events will be happening worldwide between September 9 and 17.

The Dunedin events began with the Dunedin EV Owners Group hosting a "Big Day Out'' at the Forsyth Barr Stadium car park on Sunday.

Mr Digby's 1904 Baker Electric made an appearance, along with numerous other electrics from across the South Island.

The event also featured EV conversions and electric bikes on display, and the opportunity to test drive electric cars.

Other events include a panel discussion, at the Dunedin City Library at 5.30pm on Thursday.

The Autospectacular on Saturday at the Edgar Centre will also include an electric car display.

It seems that what was once a relative backwater in terms of electric vehicle uptake could be on track to become the electric vehicle capital of New Zealand.

Tom Rawcliffe is a University of Otago humanities intern at the Otago Daily Times.


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