Electric speed

Up until 1902, every fastest car in the world was electric.

La Jamais Contente
La Jamais Contente [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When I was young, the stereotype of electric cars was their comedic slowness – per The Simpsons: “I’m an electric car. I can’t go very fast or very far.” But, in fact, there was a period of time in which electric cars were the fastest ones on the road. That period of time was the 19th century.

In 1900, the land speed record was held by the Belgian racer La Jamais Contente. It was the first car purposefully designed to break the record. It was made of a unique alloy of tungsten, magnesium, and aluminium and shaped like a bullet (because bullets are fast). Even the car’s name was fast – it translates as “Never Satisfied.” And it was 100% electric.

This surprised me: there’s a long history of electric-powered vehicles. Every fastest car until 1902 was electric. The first non-horse-powered taxis in London were the Bersey electric cabs. At the turn of the century, more than 30,000 electric vehicles were on the streets of the United States – outnumbering gas-powered vehicles nearly 2 to 1. By 1910 you could swap out your empty batteries for new ones thanks to the Hartford Electric Light Company.

La Jamais Contente may have been the high point of the early electric car: it was the first vehicle to go faster than 100 kilometres per hour. By the 1920s, gas had won the day and electric cars stayed in the margins for the rest of the 20th century.

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