Easy Rider

The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle

by Michael Shnayerson
Random House, 295 pp., $25.00

Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America

by Michael Brian Schiffer
Smithsonian Institution Press, 225 pp., $24.95

Is there an American male who hasn’t at some time fantasized about getting to test-drive the newest, sportiest, most advanced automobiles Detroit produces? Cars rank fairly low on my own list of obsessions—still, it was with unmistakable pleasure that I climbed into the driver’s seat of GM’s new EV1 last month. The nation’s first mass-produced electric car in seventy-five years, the EV1 goes on sale later this fall in California. If you are interested in buying one, here is what you need to know.

Urged on by the GM rep, I took my low-slung, cherry-red EV1 from zero to seventy-five in eight or nine seconds, the fastest and smoothest acceleration I’ve ever felt. And the quietest—the car sounds like a muscular laptop computer. “What we’re showing people is that the future doesn’t need to be like Soylent Green,” the GM rep said. And in fact this was entirely unlike eating processed human flesh. “You can save the planet and have a hell of a lot of fun,” he said as we not roared, not zoomed, but hushed past an impressed crowd of schoolboys.

The electric car has a history—it’s one of the few inventions I can think of that was briefly successful, went into a long decline, and now has a second chance. Michael Brian Schiffer provides a comprehensive history of its first appearance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when New York City boasted electric taxi fleets, Henry Ford’s wife cruised the grounds of her estate in an electric car, and dozens of manufacturers competed to build battery-powered vehicles. If the electric car had won out in its early battle with the internal combustion engine, the nation would likely look utterly different today—not only cleaner and quieter, but more compressed, with the sprawl of suburbs limited by the range of the storage battery.

We sped off down the other fork of the road, and for an interesting reason. Cars were not a utilitarian invention, but were originally seen as toys for well-to-do men, and the way that they played with them was by “touring” the countryside. Had they been judged by their suitability for commuting, say, or their ease of maintenance and operation, electrics would have prevailed—but as even the relentless boosters at Electrical World admitted in a 1902 editorial, the battery current would not last long and it was hard to imagine driving through the countryside with an eye on the electric meter, as reined in as if you were connected to a long extension cord. “In touring the country [one] wants to have a certain liberty of action which a journey fully prearranged does not and cannot give,” Electrical World wrote sadly, a credo that could serve as a useful epigram for the century that followed.

From the outset, therefore, electric cars were confined to a special or “niche” market, the niche being occupied by well-to-do women who did not like …

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