The Undelivered Promise of the Electric Car

An early Detroit Electric car 'juices up' its battery packs in the early 1920's.           
Photo Credit:

Milburn, Detroit Electric, Columbia, Argo, Woods, Ohio Electric. These manufacturers, and countless others at the dawn of the 20th Century, produced & sold lightweight vehicles powered by electricity. Batteries, not engines, appeared under the uniquely-shaped bonnets of the first generation "EV" to serve as an alternative to the noisy and dirty internal combustion engine. Massive battery packs stored enough energy to allow them to travel up to 45 or 50 miles before they required a charge. They were clean, roomy, quiet, moderately affordable, and didn't emit a single pollutant save for the soot or steam at the power generation source.

Fast forward 100 years...

Photo Credit: Chevrolet
Today we have the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMi-EV, Chevrolet Spark EV and similar battery-powered electric cars. Most are small, cramped, heavy, microcars that can travel 70 or 80 miles before requiring a charge. Most of the vehicles come with a premium price tag, and their battery chargers vary in their design and power requirements. Today's EV charging infrastructure in the United States does exist, but sporadically. Automakers have had a century to get it right, and to date they've only added a mere 25 miles to an electric car's range, rendering them impractical for the average American's driving demands. Steep retail prices of $30,000 and up for an EV, even with tax incentives and lower operating costs factored in, have steered many consumers in another direction. Overall emissions haven't improved during the last 100 years either, considering that 66.7% of today's EV's are recharged with power derived from the burning of fossil fuels...the exact same source of fuel that we've used for power generation for decades.

Does this smack of a century of progress?

A decades-old building advertisement touting paint work for your electric 'brougham' from the brass car era is still visible along  Main Street in Peoria, Illinois.

 Case Study: The Milburn Light Electric Automobile

While wandering the halls of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago many years ago, I remembered seeing a strange-looking car in their "Yesterday's Main Street" exhibit. Its one of those brick-paved streetscapes of yesteryear that featured a few historic shops, a silent movie theater, and best of all...old cars! Parked along the curb on the brick-paved street was a tall square blue & black car without a grille. It wasn't a Model T, or anything familiar. The only external marking was a trim plate on the running board that read "Milburn Light Electric". What was this unusual breed of automobile? 

A Milburn Light Electric Brougham.

An early advertisement for the 1915 Milburn Light Electric.       Photo Credit: University of Toledo Library

Like their competitors, The Milburn Wagon Company started out in the 1840's building horse-drawn wagons for farmers, wholesalers, and oil tankers. George Milburn, founder of the Milburn Wagon Company was a relative of another successful wagonmaker, Clement Studebaker. In the mid 1900's, Milburn was the supplier of coach-build bodies for The Ohio Electric Automobile company. The coachwork that sat atop the Ohio chassis was well-built and stylish, thanks to the folks at Milburn. As horseless carriages came into vogue, Ohio Electric decided to follow the lead of the American streetcar, and turned to the burgeoning  advancement of electricity rather than gasoline to power their vehicles.

After watching dozens of startup firms gain early success with battery-powered electric cars, Milburn started production of their own "light electric" car in 1915. The popular Milburn electric cars were known for their low cost and Lightweight handling. Their ease of use also appealed to women, who didn't have to mess with a crank-start or exhaust fumes or oil. President Woodrow Wilson & his wife, Edith purchased a Milburn and the appeal of the electric car was so great that auto tycoon Henry Ford purchased an electric car for his wife, Clara. What made the Milburns go was a DC battery pack built by General Electric. The batteries wired in parallel and worked to silently move the cars at speed, but were heavy and took up a large space at the front and rear of the vehicle.

A battery pack for a 1922 Milburn electric car.          Photo Credit:

The Early Downfall

While the modern term "Range Anxiety" didn't exist during the Milburn's heyday, yesterday's consumers did express concern over the limitations that electric vehicles inherently possessed. At the forefront was the relatively short advertised range of 50 miles, which often proved to be shorter in real-world driving conditions. Owners wondered: Would the family be able to get to their destinations and home safely? If the weather conditions were inclement or the passenger load was too heavy, would the batteries would drain sooner than anticipated? Strike one. Along came the remedy in the form of the home charging unit! For the low cost of $130, a home charger would ensure that the battery's electrons would be lively enough to propel the cars down the road a little longer. You could plug in your Milburn at night at your home, where electricity would be plentiful and cheap, provided that you have an electrified home in the late nineteen-teen's or early 20's. Many American cities and suburban areas had received electricity, but rural areas had not, effectively eliminating a large customer base that was growing more familiar with gasoline-powered tractors, farm implements, trucks, and automobiles. Strike two.

Milburn's home charging unit shown.           Photo Credit:

If you were a city-dweller with a Milburn in places like Chicago, and didn't have permission from the landlord to install a charging station, agreements between manufacturers and General Electric established a battery rental program. Owners that wanted to travel longer distances would be able to swap out their depleted batteries for fresh ones, install them, and resume their travel. This quelled some of the range worries that electric vehicle owners faced.

A 1915 New York Times article about the battery swapping program owners could use.       
Photo Credit: NY Times

At the end of the day, though, diverting from your planned route so you could unhook and lift out a set of batteries, throw them on a cart, wheel a new set over and reinstall everything still took time and back muscle. Strike Three. Charging stations, battery rental programs and more stylish body designs were the answers to early EV owner concerns, but they weren't enough. Milburn, the company that made electric cars fit for the leader of the free world went from 'in' in 1915 to 'out' by 1923.

Autopsy Results

Several factors contributed to the decline of the Milburn, but first and foremost...the electric car cost more than a conventional gasoline-powered car. In 1915, the initial offering of the Milburn coupe cost $1485. Their factory in Toledo cranked out less than 500 models in a year. Meanwhile that same year in Dearborn, Henry Ford churned out  501,000 Ford Model T's that carried a more modest $440 price tag. High sales volume meant a lower unit price, and hundreds of thousands of folks could then afford to park one at the curb in front of their bungalow. 

Photo Credit: University of Toledo Library
Then there were the business setbacks of a fire at the Milburn plant in 1919. The destruction of that fire forced the company to migrate to the grounds of Toledo University, setup a new factory, and take up some side jobs, such as building bodies for General Motors cars to keep up with the growing demand for their vehicles. According to the Milburn Light Electric website, Milburn built several bodies for the Oldsmobile division during this time period. As the sales of Olds and other GM offerings picked up, it made it even harder for niche manufacturers such as Milburn and Detroit Electric to continue selling their products. Speaking of GM, the company would eventually offer to purchase the factory that Milburn owned, and gave them enough cash to make the deal attractive. In 1923, the last Milburns rolled out of the shop and other than a subsidiary, the name was one for the history books. 

The Milburn's profile is reminiscent of a horse-drawn carriage, which makes sense considering the Milburn Wagon Company was the largest wagon manufacturing firm for many years in the late 1800's.

With a cost of $1485.00 and a range of 50 miles, the Milburn Light Electric automobile enjoyed an 8-year production run. Roughly 50 models still exist, including this beautifully restored example, a 1917 Milburn Light Electric Coupe, owned by Robert DeFreitas of Michigan.

The Thirst For Gasoline Grows

Oil rigs dot the landscape of Signal Hill, California in 1923.
Gasoline powered cars quickly gained popularity in the US during the early 1920's and 30's thanks to their low cost, and ample supply of petroleum. A rich infrastructure of highways and service stations eventually helped create a seamless road course from sea to shining sea, and the public was eager to take advantage of the new path to pleasure in their Fords, Overlands, or Huppmobiles. Pulling the plug on the electric car was made possible by the ease of stopping at the local Standard station, throwing a few gallons of gas in the tank, and continuing your journey even if you didn't have a carefully planned route. No longer were there concerns over dead heavy battery packs or the downtime of waiting for a recharge. The lights were all green, and we had a full tank for the next 3 decades.

"So you'd better get out of my way, when I run through your yard, cause I've got a bitchin' Camaro and an Exxon credit card." - The Dead Milkmen

As the decades rolled on, and the average American automobile grew more and more overweight, some began to notice they also carried an unquenchable thirst for fuel. No matter, gas was cheap! Still, it wasn't until the growing urban environmental movement took hold in the late 1960's and the pair of oil shortages left consumers waiting in line for their precious go-go juice. In the mid 70's gasoline was in short supply, and uncertainty in the global oil market caused nail-biting in the CEO offices of every automaker. They had to try something different.

The Return of the EV

A handful of EV concept and production cars began to emerge in the 1970's as a way for automakers to test electric drive concepts and battery technology. It also helped prepare them for the growing public demand for 'alternative' fuel sources. There was a short flare-up of diesel-powered cars but thanks to cost-cutting...that fizzled out. Hydrogen test cars emerged soon after, but skyrocketing costs prohibited further development. Perhaps the most serious contender arrived in 1996...the GM EV1. The EV1 was a limited production follow-up to their 1990 Impact electric concept vehicle. GM marketed the cars using a multimillion dollar mail campaign. Beginning in the early 1990's, folks on the mailing list received periodic status updates on the EV1, and opportunities to view and test drive the initial public offerings. All the letters and brochures came from the Electric Vehicles Division of GM on natural recycled paper, so the early appeals to the environmentally-conscious consumers were clear. If you qualified and wanted to drive a car you plugged in instead of refueled, the EV1 was for you! The cars, which boasted a range of up to 100 miles on a single charge, came equipped with a home charger unit that operated off of a standard 110-volt AC power source.

The martian-like General Motors EV1 in happier times. 
Only 20 of the 1,117 units produced exist today.
While the prospect of the EV1 tested well, the execution (literally) of the cars left a lot to be desired. CEO Rick Waggoner cancelled the program saying the company couldn't sell enough of the electric cars to maintain profitability. For various legal reasons, in 2003 the remaining inventory of EV1s were scrapped. Many claim GM got rid of the cars in an effort to avoid federal regulations forcing them to manufacture parts and support the EV1's in the aftermarket. Other critics say it was because of the lack of maintenance EV's require compared to gasoline counterparts, which would have eaten into the company's lucrative auto parts business. Regardless, GM donated 20 EV1 cars to educational institutions and museums, including the Smithsonian. General Motors learned volumes on how to build electric cars and provide reliable charging platforms between 1990 and 2003. These lessons learned would later be applied to the Chevrolet Volt and Spark cars available at dealerships today.

The EV in 2013: You've Come a Long Way, Baby?

The return of the EV has brought millions of advancements with it, from the improvement of battery design and storage, to the creation of tires that reduce rolling resistance and increase energy transfer to the road. This year alone, the Electric Drive Transportation Association reports 67,000 buyers have buzzed home in new plug-in EV. (Gasoline / electric hybrid vehicle sales account for more than 5 times that figure.) Consumers appear to be eager to embrace the new, GREEN electric vehicle thanks to attractive tax incentives, stylish EV-specific styling of cars such as Nissan's Leaf or the Chevy Volt, and the feel-good effects of driving what's billed as a Zero Emmission Vehicle. 15 new battery-powered EV models are currently on sale in the US in 2013 and more are expected in the coming years. Will they take off in the US market? 

Probably not. Here's why:

Lack of Battery Technology

Look at your cell phone's battery indicator right now, or if you're viewing this on a laptop or tablet, how much battery life is left? Chances are its in need of a few minutes (or hours) on the charging station. Have you ever owned a wireless device that has 'wowed' you with its long battery life? Try as we might, the technology doesn't exist to allow us the same freedom to move about the country with an EV as it does with an internal combustion engine. Sure, you can argue the EV charging infrastructure doesn't exist, and you'd be right to some extent. But the one thing you can't do with an EV is recharge as quickly as you can refuel. Batteries take time to recharge, and there's a finite number of times you can recharge a battery matter if its made from Lithium-ion, Nickel-Cadmium, or any other material. In a culture obsessed with instant gratification and a short attention span, nobody is going to put their travel plans on 'PAUSE' in 2013 to let their car recharge. Some groups would have you believe that's what EV motorists should do, however.

Ye Olde Charging Station, circa 2013

Range Anxiety

EV manufacturers pushed rental companies to stock a few EV models in their fleets so that interested consumers could rent one to 'try it out' to see if they liked it enough to purchase one. Guess what? They're not renting them because they're afraid they'll run out of juice. Technology simply hasn't been able to address the problem of car batteries not being able to carry us as far as the combustion engine, even 100 years later. EV advocates and environmental groups are advocating such concepts as battery swap programs for the Nissan Leaf. This concept has been tried before with programs similar to the Milburn...and failed. Consumers currently can buy a conventional car, gas it up, and drive it anywhere on the continent without stopping except to get more gas. Once you've given folks the convenience of the interstate fuel stop at the BP station, you can't take it away from them. That's what we're accustomed to. That's what we've evolved to expect from our cars. You can't do that with an EV, except for 70 to 100 mile chunks at a time, accompanied by 1 to 2 hours of recharge time in between. No matter what new whiz-bang charging or battery-swapping schemes we drum up, putting your travel plans on hold while your car a technological step backwards.

There's No Such Thing as a Zero Emission Vehicle

Marketing tactics infer that a plug-in electric car is a zero emissions vehicle. You see these stickers on the windows of plug-in electric cars, and while they make people feel wonderful about their new EV, they're factually inaccurate. While the EV doesn't have a tailpipe or belch hydrocarbons, the energy used to recharge the batteries comes from a place that does. The entire US power grid is comprised of transmission lines that often leave a power generation station that burns coal, or natural gas. The nuclear power industry is whole other subject, with larger and more long-term environmental impacts. So the emissions from the generation of energy used to power the don't come from a tailpipe...they come from a smokestack several cities away. The misleading title's debunking has lead to lawsuits and the pulling of advertisements featuring the term "Zero Emissions Vehicle" in the UK.

A counterpoint to that argument is that its easier to 'regulate' a large, single source of emissions instead of millions tailpipes. True, the pollution control devices installed today at power plants have reduced harmful greenhouse gas emissions. We also should be mindful of alternative power generation such as wind and geothermal power, which is on the rise globally. There is hope in some of those areas.


Higher costs for the Milburn Light Electric and other first-generation EV's similarly plague today's EV's. A new Fiat 500 retails for $16,100, while the Fiat 500e electric stickers at twice that amount. Will the average user get twice the savings or use out of the electric version of the same car? The C+ math student in me says no, but your mileage may vary. One good thing is that the Fiat 500e comes with a program that gives you credits toward a conventional rental car when you want to drive a longer trip than 87 miles. That's how far the Fiat 500e can go on a single charge. 

Jump Starting The EV of Tomorrow

The Fisker Atlantic plug-in EV concept. Fisker is bankrupt, and currently in talks with a Chinese billionaire to float them a loan.      Photo Credit: Fisker Automotive

So have we learned much in the last century of electric motoring? You tell me. Cars like the Milburn couldn't make it, and the latest figures show the once-promising EV-builder Fisker Automotive is in dire straights as well. Justin Bieber bought a Fisker Karma, so if anyone is to blame, it could be him. Speaking of celebs that like plug-in cars, former Apple computer genius Steve Wozniak recently bought a Tesla Motors Model S. The Model S is a new four-passenger sedan built by the same company that made the sporty Tesla roadster tested by Top Gear in 2008. The new Tesla Model S has also been in the press lately, having been involved in a few fires that raise more questions surrounding the expanded use of Lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, the Boing 787 Dreamliner airliner, and even this Dell laptop that I'm typing this on. Yikes, its hot! Better wrap this post up. 

Look, the EV isn't a bad thing. Certainly there's room for improvement, and I'm not anti-EV. But until technology can yield a longer range, better battery technologies, cleaner electricity generation and do it all at a lower cost...I think many of us will stick with the two realistic choices we've got. Conventional gasoline or diesel cars -or- gas/diesel/electric hybrids. These represent the best of both worlds, and are proven designs tested in the real world for a lifetime. If manufacturers like Tesla motors can tweak things to allow for a better plug-in EV then let 'em have at it. Just don't be surprised if that BP station stays open for the next 100 years.

Jim McGill quietly motors the Milburn through the halls of the Thayer School at Dartmouth.
Photo Credit: YouTube / Dartmouth College

On a positive note, some groups are looking back on yesterday before charging into tomorrow. Remember the 1923 Milburn Coupe at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago? It just returned to the museum after a 5 year loan to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. The functional car was loaned to help Dartmouth students 'stimulate thought about alternative energies in the future'. That's what I call learning. 



  1. Very good article! I'm glad I found your blog. If I can add my two cents, the problem with electric cars in 2013 is the same as it was in 1913: a battery is merely storage for energy produced elsewhere, while a combustion engine takes its energy source with it. There just isn't a way to store enough energy economically to make a vehicle worthwhile for the way Americans drive. The solution in 1913 was to use electrics for in-town trucking and urban use, and use an automobile for anything longer-range than local errand-running.

    That same solution works today: if electric manufacturers would stop trying to emulate gasoline cars (with poor results,) and focus on an in-town brougham that would be the twenty-first century equivalent of the Milburn, they would create their own market and fill it. A large, roomy, comfortable, light, inexpensive town car, with easily-replaceable battery trays and simple mechanicals, that would give about 50 miles at an easy 40 mph or so, would fit the bill for in-town and errand work, which would be, what, 70% of all the driving a family does? That's why Fisker failed: they missed their market.

  2. Thanks Mr. Thompson for the kind words. I agree that a 'city car' marketing plan would keep people's expectations in line with reality. Plus, Americans would love that because they would remain a 'multi-car family' like we've been for decades. Good point on the Fisker cars. Nice styling though, so its sad to see good work go to waste.

    Thank you for stopping by, and I may order ties from you at some point, great website and products!


Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback on Throwin' Wrenches.

Popular Posts