The Electric Cars 100 Years Ahead of Their Time

About a year ago, I decided that it was time to give my 2003 Camry to a friend, and took the plunge and bought a new Tesla. As I wrote about here, I really enjoy the various features in the car, and thanks to its software updates, it keeps getting better. A recent update brings a rearview camera livefeed onto the screen whenever I turn on the blinker, for example.

I thought the Tesla was ahead of its time, but then I visited the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks (one of the biggest pleasant surprises of our Alaska trip). There I learned that there were electric cars in the early 1900s, and I was also unexpectedly brought to tears.

As far as we were told, the Fountainhead is one of the two largest private car collections in the US. I’m not a car person, and I’ve never attended a car show, but I’m so glad we went to this museum. These cars were so incredibly beautiful, and I think a big part of the reason that was possible was because they weren’t particularly fast. Now we’re zooming around at 70 mph–these old cars are more like fancy carriages.

Each car in the museum includes an example of the clothing popular at that time. There’s something particularly beautiful to me about this dress (and the matching car).

Some of the cars even included flower holders, both for the aesthetics and to defuse the smell (apparently people didn’t bathe as much back then as they do now).

Even though I’m not a car person, I really do enjoy my Tesla, and I’m excited for the future sustainability of electric cars. So I was instantly drawn to–and baffled by–the electric cars.

I’d heard of some failed electric cars in the ’70s and ’80s, but the ’10s? Yet it’s true. Not only were there electric cars back then, but there were even charging stations in some cities.

I talked to one of the curators about the electric cars–which apparently still run, but with newer batteries–and he said they started off having a big advantage over gas cars, because they didn’t need to be hand-cranked to start (it was loud and physically taxing). Once gas cars were easy to start, they became the choice of the thousands of people who could afford cars back then.

I’m still trying to fully comprehend how close we came to an alternate history where electric cars took off instead of gas-powered cars. Imagine the advancements and infrastructure we’d have in place! Imagine how the world might be different if we hadn’t been reliant on petroleum over the last 120 years.

One other quick note about the museum is that there were so many car brands I’ve never heard of because they either went out of business or they were swallowed by bigger companies. It was a good reminder that even if you create something spectacular, it’s so easy to be lost in the annals of history.

I mentioned some unexpected tears earlier in this post. My father passed away in late January, and as I was walking through this museum, I had one of those moments where it hit me really hard that Dad would have loved visiting–or even just talking about–this museum. That’s how I found myself crying in the middle of a car museum in Fairbanks, Alaska. And that’s okay.

2 thoughts on “The Electric Cars 100 Years Ahead of Their Time”

  1. This brings the question of how much effort the oil lobbies have constantly put to ensure no other viable alternative even became mainstream until now. So many possibilities, yet sometimes it feels like we chose poorly.

  2. Fascinating. I didn’t know about the chargers back then 🙂 bicycles were the reach the ‘electrics’ didn’t take off. They were faster until the gas guzzlers came along 🙂


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