The mission of the Northeast Classic Car Museum consists of educating the public on different aspects of the automobile and its history throughout the years. This is the 4th in a series of 5, originally published in the Norwich Evening Sun in 2006.
As early as 1600, the Dutch, no strangers to wind power, had built a wind-powered, sail mounted carriage. These carriages were reported to hold several passengers and move at speeds as high as twenty miles per hour. While the Dutch dreamed in terms of the wind, others were thinking of other means of propulsion. In the 1700s, a vehicle was built that was powered by an engine based on the workings of a clock. What the inventors neglected to calculate, however, was that any clock that was capable of moving a vehicle with passengers would have to outweigh the load it was carrying.
The first electric-powered road vehicle was built around 1839 and was, along with others built within the next several years, generally unsuccessful. The steam-powered engine had to wait for a boiler to build up pressure and was very noisy. The concept of an electrical engine that could start immediately and run quietly was very attractive, but there were disadvantages. In 1880, there was a general improvement in the development of longer-lasting batteries. There still existed, however, excessive weight and bulk of the batteries and the need for frequent charging.
In the American car world at the turn of the century, “steamers” and electric cars gained their most sustained measure of success. There were approximately 1,681 steam-powered automobiles and 1,575 electrically-powered ones. Only 936 of the cars relied on a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. But, as the number of car drivers grew, they noticed that steam cars took 20 to 45 minutes to heat up and raise enough pressure to start, while the internal combustion engine started almost immediately. The electric cars started promptly, too, but they were expensive, slow and could only go about one-third as far as an internal combustion car before the battery ran down.
Eventually twenty different companies would produce electric cars and in the peak of their popularity, nearly 35,000 were operating on American roads. “Steamers” were actually more popular with more than 100 American plants producing them. The most famous was manufactured by the
After World War II, integrated fenders and fully-closed bodies began to dominate sales, with the new sedan body style even incorporating a trunk at the rear for storage. Most of the technology used in automobiles had been invented, although it was often re-invented again at a later date. Throughout the 1950s, engine power and vehicle speeds rose, designs became more integrated and artful, and cars spread across the world. In
New technologies and fuels are following in the wake of those early experiments, and some – like hydrogen – may prove more fantastic that we had ever dreamed.
Article written by Audrey Robinson and Richard Ellinwood of the NECCM Education Committee. Reprinted courtesy of The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY.