You may think electric cars are a recent invention but in fact they’ve been around since the dawn of the automobile in the Victorian era – and I’ve just had an exclusive drive in a replica of the very first one.
Had it not been for the easy and practical availability of petroleum spirit, the restrictive range of batteries, and the shortage of electric charging points – challenges which still exist to this very day – they might well have become the dominant motoring force even then.
But they lost out in the race to dominate the 19th and 20th centuries because ubiquitous petrol gave a longer range at a cheaper price and had a more plentiful supply of its base product – oil.
To get a little taste of what might have been, I’ve just been driving a replica of what is believed to be the world’s first rechargeable electric carriage on a remote stretch of private road exactly 140 after the original’s first outing the ground-breaking Tesla of its day.
Test driving the world’s first rechargeable electric car: Ray Massey, Daily Mail motoring editor, has taken to the controls of a replica of the original EV
The replica vehicle, which took two months to create, pays homage to French inventor and electrical engineer, Gustave Trouvé, who is believed to have driven the world’s first rechargeable electric vehicle down Rue de Valois in Central Paris in April 1881.
The replica pays homage to Trouvé’s original, which he is believed to have driven down Rue de Valois in Paris in 1881
His pioneering zero-emissions electric car came about when he attached an electric motor and rechargeable battery to an English-made Coventry Lever tricycle.
It was Coventry’s dominance as a centre for bicycle production that later made the city the centre for car production – as Britain’s ‘Motown’.
The only 21st Century elements in the replica vehicle are a modern battery and an electric motor from an e-bike.’
Significantly, Trouvé’s invention paved the way for a wave of late Victorian electric cars.
Building a replica electric tricycle to recreate Trouvé’s historic run and commemorate its anniversary was the brainchild of motoring expert and event specialist Jeremy Hart, who has created other world firsts such as arranging a Formula-E electric race car to drive on the Greenland ice cap and getting a Jaguar on a 300m high-wire over the River Thames.
Over a century ahead of Tesla: Had it not been for the easy and practical availability of petroleum spirit, the restrictive range of batteries, and the shortage of electric charging points – challenges which still exist to this very day – EVs might well have become the dominant motoring force from the late 1800s. Inset: A Tesla car dealership in Cambridge
The replica vehicle, which took two months to create and was produced by Penny-Farthing builder, Christian Richards (pictured)
The replica is produces less than 1 horsepower and the top speed is a restricted – and fairly pedestrian – 10mph
Hart persuaded leading electric commercial vehicle specialists Maxus (formerly LDV) to back the scheme and brought on board Victorian cycle engineer Christian Richards to build the replica in his workshop in North Yorkshire.
The finished cycle was then transported to France in an electric MAXUS eDELIVER 9 van, where the replica followed Trouve’s original first test-drive route in Paris at an average speed of 10mph. Then it came back to the UK where I had a chance to try it out.
What’s it like behind the controls of the first chargeable electric vehicle?
Resembling a cross between a penny-farthing and an early Benz, this rickety and surprisingly strong though fragile-looking three-wheeler is dominated by one large rubber-rimmed driving wheel, a second wheel in front for steering by means of a tiller, and a third at the side for balance.
The high-riding single wooden bench seat with metal surround for the driver is, it must be said, is a cosy squeeze and clearly designed more for snake-hipped French waiters.
What’s it like at the controls? Ray Massey smiles with delight as he takes the replica EV for a quick (or slow) spin
The accelerator is a thin-black handle on the left which sits beneath a sturdier wooden and metal grab-handle
Squeeze the throttle gently upwards and you can accelerate up to speeds that are the equivalent to a brisk walk or jog
The accelerator is a thin-black handle on the left which sits beneath a sturdier wooden and metal grab-handle. Squeeze it gently upwards and, with the help of a little push to get you going, off you go – trundling along at a steady speed equivalent to a brisk walk or jog.
No seat-belts, crumple-zones, lights or dashboard – open to the elements this is pioneering wind-in the hair motoring in the raw.
Power is less than one horse-power and there are bicycle-style pedals to help give some extra help up steep inclines or if the battery gives out. The battery itself sits in a compact wooden box slightly bigger than one that might be used to present a bottle of fine wine.
Will it fit in my garage? Replica of Gustave Trouvé’s 1881 electric car
Original built: 1881
Replica driven built: 2021
Replica created by: Christian Richards of Penny Farthing firm ‘Richards of England’, supported by: Maxus / The Harris Group
Length: 7.5 ft
Battery: 24 volt battery from modern electric e-bike
Power: Less than 1 horse-power
Top speed: restricted to 10mph
It certainly attracts attention too provoking curiosity and searching questions from passers-by and householders.
Though a 21st century creation, the replica 19th century electric vehicle has been made with materials that closely match those of the original vehicle.
Craftsman Christian Richards said: ‘I was actually researching electric vehicles when I had the call to see if I would like to recreate the 1881 model.
‘There are very few detailed images of the original EV available, but I think this is pretty precise and I’ve tried to stay as true to the original as possible.
The model was built using a Coventry Lever tricycle and the only 21st Century elements are a battery and motor from an e-bike.’
As with the original, the replica vehicle features solid rubber tyres that are not much wider than a thumb, brass trim, and a brake set-up made from a strip of leather.
However, unlike the modern electric vehicles of today, the original EV model is not a comfortable carriage.
Richards said: ‘It is quite lively, especially with tiller steering. I have put a restrictor on the throttle, but even so, it has lots of power.
‘I have kept the pedals on from the original tricycle and rather than help it go faster, they help to slow it down.’
An IT programmer by trade, his firm Richards of England (www.richardsofengland.co.uk), has a workshop in York creating hand-made Penny Farthings and replica vintage bicycles. He creates each bicycle from scratch, manufacturing every element including tubing, rims, spokes, pedals, and saddles, that replicate those made in the 19th century.
To this day, early examples of electric cars take part in the London to Brighton Veteran car run.
Mark Barrett, general Manager of Harris MAXUS which supported the event said: It’s amazing to think that the future of motoring started some 140 years ago, and here we are today at the start of a new greener motoring revolution.’
‘Trouvé was a true visionary and it’s ironic that a 19th Century invention, with just a few 21st century modifications – quite a few actually – is now the powertrain of the future’.
Left: The battery powering the replica EV puts out 24 volts and is similar to those used on today’s e-bikes. Right: The bicycle-style pedals to help give some extra help up steep inclines or if the battery gives out
The finished cycle has already been transported to France in an electric MAXUS eDELIVER 9 van, where the replica followed Trouve’s original first test-drive route in Paris. It then returned to the UK where Ray had a chance to try it out
Its creator says it is ‘quite lively’ to operate, ‘especially with tiller steering’. Richards explains: ‘I have put a restrictor on the throttle, but even so, it has lots of power’
The new electric MAXUS eDELIVER9 van which transported the Trouve electric contraption has a 72Kwh battery and a range of up to 219 miles.
Mr Barrett said: ‘It is worth remembering how it all started, and that is why we are celebrating and honouring M. Trouvé today.’
Since 2010 (formerly the Birmingham-based LDV) Maxus (www.saicmaxus.co.uk ) has been manufactured by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation(SAIC), the largest automotive company in China.
In 2015, Dublin-based The Harris Group, secured distribution rights to LDV – now MAXUS – for the UK, Ireland and right-hand drive Europe.
‘No seat-belts, crumple-zones, lights or dashboard – open to the elements this is pioneering wind-in the hair motoring in the raw,’ says Ray Massey
Ray says the high-riding single wooden bench seat with metal surround for the driver is a cosy squeeze and clearly designed more for snake-hipped French waiters
Without doubt. the vintage EV certainly attracts attention, provoking curiosity and searching questions from passers-by and householders
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.