The History of Electric Vehicles in the UK

In the beginning...

Electric vehicles now have a crucial role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport and supporting the UK’s drive to net zero by 2050. But where did the story start?

The popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) has grown exponentially in recent years and sales are forecasted to rise even further, as we approach the impending ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2035.

With zero emissions, electricity is considered the cleanest form of energy to power the vehicles of the future. Whilst many believe that EVs are a relatively new concept, the first electric vehicles were manufactured and driven on UK roads in the early 19th century. A lack of historical perspective sometimes leads to confusion about the sudden emergence and subsequent success story of the electric vehicle revolution and its influence on today’s car manufacturers. Let’s delve into the dim and distant past and discover the history of the EV.

The first EV

The predominant mode of transport in the early 1800s was by horse and carriage, for those affluent enough to afford the luxury of travel.

However, by 1830, pioneers from Europe, the US and the UK had begun to test the theory of a battery-powered vehicle. The result was the development of the first-ever small-scale electric car, credited to Scottish-born inventor, Robert Anderson, circa 1832.

These prototypes operated using non-rechargeable low-capacity batteries, proving the concept of an electric vehicle but having little purpose in terms of practicality. It took until the second half of the 19th century before more effective versions were built in France and England, which featured the first lead-acid battery. This new style battery provided a viable way of storing electricity onboard the vehicle.

Electric cars in production

In 1884, Thomas Parker, an English inventor who was responsible for electrifying the London Underground and Blackpool’s famous tramways, built the first production electric car in Wolverhampton.

Parker was concerned about the effect of fossil fuels (such as gas and coal) on the environment and wanted to pursue eco-friendly options for transportation. However, there was little public interest in his new electric vehicle, despite it having the potential to be mass-produced and positively transform travel.

Parker’s invention faced a further setback with the introduction of the Red Flag Act (1865), which placed constraints on all road vehicles other than horse-drawn carriages. The act stipulated that every vehicle must have three operators on board, not exceed the speed limit of 4 miles per hour (mph) on open roads (2 mph in towns) and must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag to warn others of the vehicle’s proximity. The Red Flag Act was eventually repealed in November 1896, sparking a renewed interest in electric cars and asserting their presence on Britain’s roads.

London’s electric taxis

In 1897, electrical engineer, Walter Bersey designed and introduced a fleet of battery-powered taxis to London. With a top speed of 9-12 mph, Bersey’s taxis were the first self-propelled vehicles for hire in the capital city.

When the taxis were first unveiled, they undertook the London-Brighton race, which was introduced to celebrate the demise of the Red Flag Act and is still a top-rated challenge event to this day.

Each taxi was licensed by Scotland Yard and had to adhere to four conditions: each taxi must be accompanied by a driver, stop on the passenger’s request, turn in a small space and be able to climb London’s steepest hill (Savoy) with ease.

However, the taxis suffered many issues, including noise, vibration, numerous breakdowns, tyre wear due to the excessive weight (2 long tons) and the rising cost of electricity. So with regret, two years after their debut, the Bersey taxis disappeared from the roads.

The rise and fall of EVs in the early 20th century

At the turn of the century, US innovator Thomas Edison began to explore new ways to improve the technology behind electric vehicles, including a significantly enhanced battery, offering longer life and greater power. In the same year (1901), Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the famous sports car, developed the world’s first hybrid car, propelled by electricity stored in a battery and a petrol engine.

Energised by the new developments, electric cars made a resurgence and became more commonplace on UK roads. For the first time, electric cars were viewed as the future of the automobile industry. The EV’s competitors included steam-powered vehicles, which could take up to an hour to prepare and heat for a journey, while early combustion-engine cars were difficult to start, dirty, unreliable and awkward to operate. By comparison, electric cars were seen as a convenient, easy-to-use option without the need to change gear.

In 1914, Henry Ford partnered with Thomas Edison to investigate the possibilities of a low-cost electric car, riding on the wave of the EV’s popularity. Both men were iconic individuals in their fields. Ford was one of the pioneers in the automobile industry and founded the Ford Motor Company, while Edison was a renowned inventor with more than a thousand patents to his name.

However, the EV’s early success was based more on the shortfalls of combustion cars, rather than its capabilities and availability. In the following years, several factors contributed to the EV’s rapid decline.

Maturing road networks created a demand for faster, more efficient cars with longer ranges and quicker refuel times. Depreciating oil prices meant cheaper fuel, attracting even more drivers away from the heavy, cumbersome electric models.

But it was the introduction of the Model T in 1908 that sounded the final death knell for EVs, especially when combined with Ford’s new mass production techniques resulting in better availability and more affordable purchase prices.

Smiths Milk Float, latest addition at the Great British Car Journey in Ambergate

The Dark Age for EVs

Once the car manufacturers had turned their back on electric power and focussed their efforts on producing affordable petrol and diesel vehicles, it led to a dark age for EVs, which lasted for much of the 20th century and brought about total dominance for fossil fuel transportation.

Car ownership continued to expand as drivers embraced the freedom that the combustion engine provided, long distances were no longer an issue and fuel was readily available. This era completely revolutionised road travel in the UK and left electric vehicles in the dust.

Meanwhile, the electric motor found a new long-term home in the modest milk float, silently delivering milk in the early hours of the morning.

When car manufacturers began to return to EVs in the nineties in response to rising greenhouse gases, their offerings were produced in tiny numbers and most were unrefined conversions of conventional models.

Image: 1920 Smith Electric Vehicle – Milk Float.  The latest addition at the Great British Car Journey in Ambergate.

Electric vehicles in the 21st century

Tesla Motors started work on the Tesla Roadster in 2004, with the first models hitting the road four years later. Tesla’s model was the first electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells and to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge.

In 2010, the Nissan Leaf, became the first modern pure electric, zero tailpipe emissions family hatchback car to be produced for the mass market from a major manufacturer.

By May of 2021, over 500,000 ultra-low emission electric vehicles were being driven on roads across the country. The UK is at the forefront of the electric vehicle revolution, with the government committing to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. This date was subsequently pushed back to 2035 in September of 2023.

Electric cars have crept more into the conscience of consumers and the industry as a whole thanks to the advancement of hybrid technology, government subsidies, new regulations, increasing environmental concerns and significant investment in technological development.

As such, the EV is now more than a serious contender for its fossil fuel counterparts, as comparable model ranges and prices are within sight.

TSG leads the way

Undoubtedly, electricity is currently blazing a trail as adoption grows and technology develops, it will become the obvious choice for forward-thinking motorists and businesses alike.

TSG is now recognised as the UK’s first-choice engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor and has the expertise to provide a complete end-to-end turnkey EV charge solution, from site survey, design, consultancy and distribution network operator (DNO) connections.

Author: Cheryl Ashton

EV charging solutions

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