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By David Rooney on

Electric vehicles

Transport Curator David Rooney discusses the BMW MINI E trials and the potential for it to join the likes of the curiously-shaped G-Wiz electric car on our streets.

My colleague Peter Turvey, senior curator at our Wroughton site, brought to my attention the BMW MINI E, an electric version of the famous small car I talked about in an earlier post. It’s going to be trialled in south-west England this autumn and, if successful, may join the likes of the curiously-shaped G-Wiz electric car on our streets.

Electric cars sound like the height of modernity, but in fact they have a far longer history than you might imagine. In fact, they’ve been around as long as the petrol motor car, and actually out-sold petrol cars in the USA in the early twentieth century. Then, as now, they were easy-to-drive, clean, quiet and relatively vibration-free.

We’ve got some very interesting early battery-powered vehicles in the Science Museum’s collections. Our Bersey electric taxicab (London’s first self-propelled taxi) dates from 1897:

Bersey electric cab, 1897 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Bersey electric cab, 1897 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This 1904 Krieger is rather luxurious – and still works:

[/caption]Our more recent electric vehicles include a 1930s delivery van (from a well-known grocery store), and a Ford ‘Comuta’ car from 1967, which reminds me very much of the G-Wiz:

Harrods electric delivery van, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Krieger electric car, 1904 (Science Museum)

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="428"]Ford Comuta car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society) Ford ‘Comuta’ car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The problem was, and is, the batteries: the range of an electric car is very short compared to that of a petrol car with a full tank. The electric car is heavy, and its top speed is relatively low. But that isn’t necessarily a big deal for most urban driving, and it brings the enormous benefit of reduced local emissions in heavily-populated areas.

I await the MINI trial results with great interest!

9 comments on “Electric vehicles

  1. Thanks, Jack – a lovely vehicle. Check out my next post (due later today) – by coincidence I am showing off our own early hybrids. As you say, a long history… David.

  2. Some more info on the Bersey Electric Cabs, from the October 2009 Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society newsletter

    Electric Taxi Cabs

    Currently there is a lot of discussion about providing green vehicles in London. A lot of the discussion seems to be centred around taxi cabs.

    Without entering into this debate, it might be of interest to learn that the current move to establish an electric cab fleet in London is not a new concept. The first electric cabs operated in London from 19 August 1897.

    These cabs were called ‘Humming Birds’ because they ran so quietly. Because of this fact they were considered a hazard, as neither people nor horses could hear them. Today, in addition to the reduced atmospheric pollution, we would consider the reduction in noise pollution as a bonus!

    According to available literature, their biggest problems seem to have been with tyres not, as one would expect, the batteries! This was around the same time as the pneumatic tyre was patented in 1888 by J B Dunlop (later revoked in favour of R W Thomson whose patent was taken out in France 1846 & the US 1847) that went into production in 1890 when he went into partnership with W H Du Cross.

    The company that constructed these vehicles was the London Electric Cab Co, located in Juxton Street, Lambeth in London. They were in business between 12 November 1896 to 8 August 1899. The company was liquidated in 1899. The cab fleet seems to have disappeared over time and most people seem to have forgotten that it ever existed.

    The London Electric Cab Co was the successor to the Ward Electrical Car Co of London that was founded by Radcliff Ward who is mentioned as designing a battery-driven bus. In 1896 they received the capital to form a bus/cab syndicate and later became the London Electric Omnibus Co.

    Thus, the electric cab has already played an important part in the development of the transport system of Victorian London — not what one would have expected!

    Dan Little

  3. Was just reading in our local paper about the new electric mini trials that are about to launch, so interesting to see these ideas are really not so new.

  4. Hello Peter,
    An internet search while researching local references to early electric vehicles brought me to this page.
    I have just come across a reference to the ‘Electrical Vehicle Syndicate Ltd.’ in a newspaper article, dated 31 May 1898 (in The Newcastle Daily Chronicle), which alleges that that firm ‘built the London [electric] motor cabs and those that are being introduced into Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and othe large centres.’ The chairman and the MD of the syndicate were brothers Alfred and Leonard Holmes, who were among the partners of a Newcastle electrical business. Do you know whether (or how) the London Electric Cab Co and the ‘Electrical Vehicle Syndicate Ltd. were linked? And did they get as far as running these vehicles elsewhere than in London?

  5. Sorry John, don’t have any information to hand about this. I believe the Bersey cabs were not very successful.

    Can think of some possible leads however.

    Gijs Mom’s book ‘The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectation in the Automobile Age’ Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, ISBN-0-8018-7138-2

    A fascinating book. May contain some clues.

    Other than that can only think of

    A search of contemporary publications (Engineer, Engineering, and electrical journals)

    The technical file for the Bersey Cab itself, a pubic record which would be held in the Science Museum Documentation centre. I will try and take a look the next time I am in London.

  6. I do not know if this is of interest to the Science Museum, or any tyre enthusiasts, but I have a framed photograph of Mr du Cross, appears to be signed ‘sincerely from Ar. du Cross’, one of the pneumatic tyre family? Photograph by H. Walter Barnett of 12 Knightsbridge., Frame makers A R Knight and Co of Edgware Road.

    Have you any idea of its value, and whom would be most interested ?

    Thank you

    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter. I’m afraid we’re unable to give advice on values. The Museums Association suggests that if people want to find out the commercial value of an object they need to find a reputable dealer or auction house. Hope this helps, many thanks, David.

  7. Harrods Electric Van
    My father JHC Bridge passed away recently in his 90th year, amongst his papers I cam across an article about his father (my Grandfather) J. H. L. Bridge “an electrical engineer and compulsive inventor”.
    My grandfather designed, supervised the building of and until he died (at 65 years of age in 1962) looked after them. As the article say’s “They are not ordinary delivery vans. They are the fruits of an idealists imagination. They were his fight”
    The electric motors were built in his workshop to his design and as the article written in 1963 says ” they (the motors) were built 20 to 25 years ago and have NEVER been touched for maintenance.
    I knew only a little about my grandfathers involvement in the Harrods Electric Van.
    I have found the article inspiring and fascinating and am surprised that there is nothing on the internet about his role and although I have seen pictures, models etc about the vans have never seen my grandfather mentioned or acknowledged. I feel very proud of my Grandfather who died when I was 2 years old so only know from a few grainy pictures.
    I would love to be able send the museum a scanned pdf copy of the article published in “Vanorama 63” written by Doug Blain.

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