In the rush to electrify vehicles today, we often fail to ask ourselves a basic question: How did gasoline cars become the industry standard in the first place?
Dozens of electric cars were produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of them had very advanced technologies for their time. However, by the 1920s, almost all new manufactured vehicles were gasoline cars.
Check out the top 8 reasons why gasoline cars beat electric cars in the early 1900s.
8) Longer range
In the early 1900s, battery technology was still in its early stages and not as developed as we see it today. Automobile batteries were heavy, low-powered, and lacked durability.
With batteries weighing almost half a ton and taking up most of the vehicle space, electric cars could not travel more than 50 miles before requiring a charge. To make matters worse, batteries were not interchangeable between different vehicle manufacturers, making it challenging to develop a standardized charging system.
By contrast, most gasoline cars could travel over 200 miles without needing to refuel by the early 1920s.
A Milburn Electric Model 27L with a 50-mile range. The car was made in the 1910s.
7) Faster refueling
1905 featured a major breakthrough in gasoline car refueling. In that year, S.F. Bowser & Company introduced the “self-measuring gasoline storage pump.”
This storage pump allowed drivers to calculate the amount of fuel required to fill the tank accurately, making refuelling faster and more convenient. Additionally, over the years, oil companies invested in better tanker truck designs and larger fuel storage tanks at fuel stations.
These efforts helped to reduce refueling times to an average of 5-6 minutes.
On the other hand, electric cars had to be recharged with electricity, and this process took much longer. Electric cars had to be plugged in and left to recharge for up to 9 hours. Even after several hours of charging, many electric cars could only travel a few miles.
6) Lower initial vehicle cost
Electric cars had higher initial costs than gasoline cars due to battery technology. Back then, the lead-acid batteries used in electric vehicles were expensive, heavy, and had a limited lifespan. The batteries had to be frequently swapped out, which increased the cost of electric cars expensive for the average consumer.
In contrast, gas engines and fuel tanks were much smaller and lighter, which significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing gasoline cars.
Another big reason for the lower cost of gasoline cars is the role of government. In the early 1900s, the US government incentivized manufacturers to produce gasoline cars by providing subsidies and tax breaks.
At the same time, the government provided little to no incentive for manufacturers to produce electric cars, leading to higher prices for consumers.
5) Better performance
Gasoline engines of the era typically produced more power and torque compared to early electric motors. Gasoline engines could achieve higher RPMs (revolutions per minute) and generate greater horsepower.
For example, in 1908, the Ford Model T had an engine that produced 20 horsepower. The typical electric car of the time produced only 3 to 5 horsepower.
In addition, gasoline-powered cars could achieve higher top speeds compared to early electric cars. Some gasoline-powered cars in the early 1900s could reach speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour or more. Early electric cars were generally slower, with top speeds in the range of 20 to 25 miles per hour or lower.
A 1908 Ford Model T
4) More established infrastructure
Cars powered by gasoline fuel became the norm as there were already gasoline stations all over the United States by the turn of the century. Meanwhile, electric cars suffered from what economists call the “chicken-and-egg” situation.
The availability of charging stations or batteries prevented the growth of electric vehicles, while the number of electric cars on the road limited the need for charging stations. Gas stations were conveniently located, and oil companies continually increased production. This led to a lower cost for gasoline, which also made the gasoline cars more affordable.
As such, between 1900 and 1920, the number of electric cars rapidly dwindled as more producers began to manufacture gas-powered automobiles.
3) Lighter weight
Gasoline cars were lighter than electric cars due to their lack of batteries.
Without the heavy batteries, gasoline cars could use lighter components, including smaller engines, fewer gears, and lighter suspension systems. Furthermore, gasoline cars had more power for the weight they carried. Therefore, manufacturers didn’t feel the need to use large and heavy components.
On the other hand, electric vehicles had to rely on bulky and heavy batteries to power the car’s motor. Batteries were essential since there was no other way to store the electricity for the car.
Since the technology hadn’t advanced as it is today, components were constructed with iron, which made them bulkier and therefore heavier. In comparison, gas-powered vehicles, which used steel components, weighed significantly less.
Statistics show that gas-powered vehicles had a considerable weight advantage over electric vehicles. In 1914, the Detroit Electric Model 47 weighed around 3,000 pounds. However, gasoline-powered vehicles such as the 1914 Ford Model T had a much lighter range of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds.
This difference is even more remarkable given that the electric car was two-seater, whereas the gasoline car was a 4-seater.
2) Superior range in cold weather
The main reason why gasoline cars had better range in cold weather was due to the lack of insulation in electric batteries.
In the early 1900s, batteries were not advanced enough to withstand extreme temperatures. Once the battery was cold, the chemical reactions inside would slow down. This led to a reduction in power output, resulting in decreased range.
Gas cars, on the other hand, had a combustion engine that produced heat, which helped to keep the car warm in cold weather. This meant that gas cars wouldn’t have to rely solely on the battery to stay warm and that the battery would be less affected by the cold.
Another reason why gasoline cars had better range in cold weather was due to fuel density. Gasoline contains more energy per unit of weight than batteries, which meant that gas cars could travel further on less fuel than electric cars could on a full charge. This was especially true in the winter when the cold temperatures would further reduce the performance of batteries.
Gasoline could also be more easily transported and stored compared to electricity. This made gasoline a more practical choice for long-distance travel.
With subfreezing temperatures common in most of the United States during winter, the poor performance of electric batteries in cold weather was a huge obstacle to electric vehicle adoption.
1) Cheaper fuel cost
More than anything else, the cheaper price of gasoline was why gasoline cars beat electric cars.
In the early 1900s, the electrical grid was in its infancy, and many rural areas didn’t have access to power. Even by 1930, only 10% of rural Americans had electricity. It was only when President Roosevelt took office later that decade that electricity became common in rural America.
In contrast, gasoline was easy to transport and could be stored on-site, making it a more cost-effective solution for those living in remote areas.
Another reason gasoline was cheaper than electricity was due to limited technology. At the time, electricity production relied heavily on expensive and inefficient steam engines. These engines were expensive to operate and required a lot of fuel to generate electricity.
In contrast, gasoline engines were becoming more efficient and reliable, making them a more cost-effective solution.
The rising demand for gasoline also played a significant role in its cheaper price. The widespread use of automobiles during this time led to a surge in demand for gasoline, which resulted in increased production and lower prices.
In contrast, the demand for electricity was not as high and therefore didn’t get the same economies of scale in production. This led to higher costs.
Lastly, competition and regulation played a significant role in the price difference between gasoline and electricity. The gasoline industry was highly competitive, with many small players vying for market share. This competition led to lower prices and increased innovation, making gasoline a more affordable option.
In contrast, the electricity industry was heavily regulated, with monopolies controlling the supply and distribution of power.
It wasn’t until President Roosevelt took office in the 1930s that electricity became common in rural areas.