Even though there was obvious development work and application going on, progress in Britain certainly lagged behind what was happening in America.
It wasn’t just against American electrics that home-built machines were found wanting. In 1913 one writer complained that the few British vehicles about were under-developed and of archaic appearance compared with their petrol-driven rivals, missing out on the opportunity presented by the steadily rising price of petrol and the steadily falling price of electricity (thanks to the growing number of power stations). Makers of electrics were routinely guilty of making over-zealous claims for the performance of their products in real life operating conditions (a phenomenon not confined to the early years of the twentieth century – see Dieselgate etc.).
The batteries were, of course, a major concern. They were expensive to purchase, their energy density declined rapidly, and their operating life was short. The battery sets were very heavy in relation to the weight and payload of any vehicle they were fitted to. The ambient temperature also had a marked effect on the discharge rate, with the battery draining faster in cold weather.
And the largely cobbled streets of London and other cities had a tendency to shake the lead off the battery plates so they ceased to work. What was needed was dedicated engineering work, serious innovation and evangelistic proselytising.
What actually occurred was the First World War, the first motorised war in history, and motorised by the petrol engine.
The use of petrol-engined vehicles had been actively encouraged before the conflict when the War Office introduced its Subsidy Scheme in 1912. Under this measure operators buying an approved vehicle that complied with a War Department specification would be paid a purchase premium of £50 plus a subsidy of £20 per year, provided the department could acquire it if there was a national emergency.
Needless to say this was a huge boost for petrol and rather a blow for steam and electric. When war came thousands of petrol trucks were requisitioned. Just one manufacturer, Leyland, built almost 6,000 petrol trucks during the war itself and after hostilities had ceased the firm bought back over 3,000 ex-WD examples and re-conditioned them for civilian service.
That said, the shortage of petrol (and steam) powered vehicles for civilian uses because of the demands of the military meant that electrics did get a temporary boost, rising in number from 150 in 1914 to around 2,000 by 1917. Even more British electrics might have been built but for the limited availability of steel and other materials.
For example, the Lyons food and restaurant company employed a fleet of eight electrics in 1915 to distribute tea around London and bought them partly because many of their horses had been commandeered for military service.
Up until the war, the market was dominated by American imports, such as Bakers and Walkers.
Walker was almost certainly the biggest producer of battery-electrics in this period. Built in Chicago, they featured a particularly clever drive arrangement called the balanced drive. Each rear wheel was driven by a separate motor that turned a sun gear. This central sun gear turned two planetary gears which in turn drove a toothed annulus attached to the wheel. This was an ingenious arrangement well-suited to light delivery vans.
In New Jersey, Thomas Edison had overseen the development of an improved traction battery – the nickel-iron type, introduced in 1909. Its storage capacity was very similar to the lead-acid but it was more robust and considerably more expensive. That said, it lasted longer and was backed by a decent warranty and good after-sales service.
Having built a presence in Britain his company had the bright idea of marketing a range of American battery-electrics under the well-known and respected Edison brand. The smaller 10 cwt vehicles were produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company (which otherwise were badged as Detroits), and the bigger machines (with payloads up to four tons) were built by GMC (later the commercial vehicle division of General Motors).
A wartime ban on vehicle imports largely cut off this source of electrics and encouraged more British makes to appear, often from companies who were already building steam-powered vehicles.
Thus in 1915 Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, the long-established Ipswich firm, introduced the first Orwell models (named after the local river). The company was famed for its agricultural machinery, traction engines and travelling cranes. It had moved from horse to steam, and now it was ready to explore the new technology of electricity.
Having completed orders for 350 wartime F.E.2b aeroplanes, Ransomes embarked on serial electric vehicle production in 1919 in their vacant aircraft factory. Initial output ran at four vehicles a week with plans to double it (hardly mass production). Their focus was on 2½ and 3½ ton models.
Nearby Richard Garrett & Sons of Leiston brought out their first Garrett electrics in 1916. Garrett was already a producer of heavier steam wagons and their electrics initially followed similar lines, but they eventually turned out to be among the most innovative electric vehicle builders of all as we shall see when we come to the 1920s.
Even ignoring the boost for petrol-powered vehicles due to the war, by 1918 it was clear that the slow and steady battery-electric was not going to be the automatic choice for most post-horse goods transport. Neither the lead-acid nor the nickel-iron battery were seeing technical advances that would boost performance or range significantly.
Indeed, as early as 1915 the petrol engine was generally regarded in the UK as the obvious choice for the great majority of road transport applications. And the performance of a petrol engine did not degrade significantly over time if it was well-maintained. On the other hand, the energy storage capacity of any battery diminished significantly over time.
The electric would find its place in a clear niche of slow speed work quietly getting on with the basic activities that hold towns and cities together – work that was still done predominantly by horses. In 1915 it was estimated that 87½ per cent of all commercial goods carrying was still horse-drawn.
A big advantage of the electric was that it was much easier to retrain carters to drive an electric than it was to drive a complicated and capricious petrol machine, with that clutch and those gears and needing to vary the mixture when the engine was cold and so on. Longer distance work, or work without frequent stops, soon became the preserve of the petrol-driven vehicle.
The road performance of this era of battery-electric goods vehicles was far from startling. A 15 cwt machine might achieve a range of 45 to 50 miles on one charge with a maximum speed on the flat of about 20 mph. A 3½ tonner could go up to 35 miles with a maximum speed on the flat of 10 mph. That dropped as low as 3 mph if it had to struggle up a 1 in 8 (12.5%) gradient with a full load.
Even so, their speed was the equal of or better than horses and their range was much greater. The trouble was, with the arrival of the petrol vehicles the rules had changed. Just as the railways usurped the slow and steady canals, petrol vehicles did not emulate horse performance, they completely reset people’s expectations of what road transport could do.
Some at this time were prepared to test an electric’s performance to the limit. A 1915 Commercial Motor contributor wrote about a journey from London to Portsmouth and back. A van weighing 2.65 tons gross set out from Chelsea with a load for Portsmouth naval dockyard, about 75 miles away. Lunch was taken at Hindhead (43 miles) and the battery had a booster charge.
On again to the dockyard where the load was dropped off. After another boost at the Portsmouth electricity works, it ran light (unloaded) the 20 miles to Southampton and thence on to Winchester (another 14 miles). I suspect the van crew spent the night there, given the steady pace of a battery-electric and the hours needed for boost charging (perhaps six hours over the course of the day). The battery was fully recharged overnight and the writer claimed that it made the 66 miles back to London in one go!
In practice two major functions became established for the battery-electric in the 1910s, both requiring a daily mileage and speed well within the capabilities of contemporary batteries.
The first was urban goods delivery. London department stores like Harrod’s, Liberty and Selfridge’s, brewers like Whitbread and Meux, general carriers like Carter Paterson, and the railway companies all employed electrics. Whereas the department stores opted for light delivery vans, some of the machines built for urban haulage were very large by the standards of the day.
Harrod’s decided to opt for electrics after the head of the business, Sir Woodman Burbidge (the son of Richard Burbridge), had seen them in successful use in American cities, in conditions which he regarded as generally similar to those in London. By then the store had a fleet of a hundred petrol-powered vehicles.
In 1913 a fleet of ten complete American Walker vans with Edison batteries was imported. This first fleet had some teething troubles owing to a mismatch between the Edison batteries and the motors, which meant they dawdled rather than dashed around the streets of London.
Once Walker had pepped them up, they performed so well that by 1917 the fleet had expanded to 60 vans – all American-built and from firms such as Detroit, General Motors, Lansden and Walker. All carried Edison batteries.
The vehicles in the fleet had a nominal range of 50 miles but rarely needed to cover more than 20 in a day, and they could reach 25 mph. A typical working day for them was about seven hours.
When the First World War saw hundreds of male employees join up, many of the vans were driven by women.
A particular attraction of electrics as delivery vans was that they reflected modernity, and enabled their customers to say that they were keeping up with the times. Their new furniture and fabrics were not sent down on a horse cart, but arrived in a silent and shining van; the store name emblazoned on the side advertising to all that they were buying from a forward-looking emporium.
The Midland Railway was probably the most progressive among the railway companies in the adoption of electric vehicles, buying its first in 1915. By 1918 it had 54 electrics in London and 22 more across its operating territory.
They ranged in size from fifteen 15 cwt delivery vans through to six five ton lorries. In Manchester electrics connected the Central station depot with the Trafford Park industrial estate four miles away. In Sheffield, where a pair of two ton machines and two 3½ tonners were employed, the city’s hills did not defeat them (even if they only trudged up them at a funerial pace).
The second function was municipal service, especially sanitation.
Local councils were not entirely willing converts to battery-electrics, but the First World War meant that new petrol and steam vehicles were predominantly going to the military. As it turned out, in refuse collection the electric proved much more efficient than horse-drawn wagons, and contemporary petrol chassis were ill-suited to continual stop start operation.
In 1918 Leyton Urban District Council bought a two ton refuse wagon that replaced three horse units and could deal with 12 tons of waste per day. This were not the sophisticated machine we are used to seeing today. The vehicle was basically a tipper. The high frame height (due to the depth of the batteries) meant that loading frequently had to be done using ladders. The bins had to be lifted up and over the sill of the body and there was little to prevent ash and dust flying about except for perhaps a tarpaulin.
The refuse truck would be driven to whatever tip the council was using (often a disused quarry) and the load was simply emptied into the landfill. So not only did these electric vehicles have to contend with cobbled streets, they had to go off-road on to rough ground to discharge their loads.
That said, an increasing number of councils recognised the potential of incinerating refuse to produce electricity and had built small power stations to do so. Within a few years, as we shall see, a number of places had introduced a closed system where battery-electrics collected the refuse, took it to the incinerator, and were recharged off the current produced in the power station. They were inspired by such a system already in place in Paris.
Early adopters of municipal electrics included Edinburgh, Enfield, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wallasey. Other municipal applications are evidenced by a page of photographs of GV trucks published in Commercial Motor in 1917. Blackpool Corporation ran a 750 gallon truck to wash the streets and Croydon, Derby and Glasgow Corporation had tippers to support their works departments. Also illustrated was a refuse collecting tipper for Mansfield.
Having said all this it is worth noting that in 1915 British municipalities were running 1,539 motor vehicles, but only 85 of those were battery-powered.
One fascinating application of electrics was as a mobile demonstrator of the wonders of electricity in the home and shop. Towards the end of the 1910s several electricity departments of towns with local power stations were very keen to get more and more premises connected up. A cable could brought into a house or shop carrying current from the battery, and the sales representative could demonstrate lighting, electric fires, irons and even vacuum cleaners (despite their prices putting them out of reach of all but the most affluent households).
The operating arrangements for battery-electrics tended to favour bigger concerns that could invest in large facilities. Fleet operators would have depots where vehicles could be stored, charged and maintained. Harrod’s even had its own generating plant, not only recharging the vehicles but also providing electricity for lighting and power throughout the store.
Charging could take place overnight and last four to five hours. Power companies were already encouraging this by offering off-peak tariffs. A booster charge could be applied to increase range during the day, especially in cold weather. Alternatively, some models were designed to permit the battery set to be swapped and replaced by a fully-charged one, thus doubling the range.
Over the years more publicly accessible charging stations opened up. By 1917 there were 38 charging stations in the London area, and 153 across the rest of Great Britain. The Edison company built charging stations throughout the country, with a concentration in the manufacturing districts of the Midlands and north of England. The usefulness of these stations was increased by growing adoption of a standard charging plug approved by the Electric Vehicle Committee, a trade body – a similar development in some ways to how more recently mobile phone manufacturers eventually standardised their chargers.
Although a major selling feature of electrics in this era was that they needed less maintenance than petrol and steam driven vehicles, they did have that Achilles heel – the battery. These were far from fit and forget. The electrolyte fluid in lead-acid batteries needed to be checked daily and topped up. Charging needed to be done slowly and with care. The charging apparatus was a complex installation that had to be paid for over and above the price of the vehicles.
The charging voltage needed to be gradually turned up as charging proceeded, otherwise the battery would start releasing increasing amounts of gas. Over- and under-charging could irreparably damage a battery or certainly accelerate its fall off in capacity over time. Therefore someone had to be paid to oversee battery charging and ensure the batteries were kept in optimum condition.
In 1918 the Cleansing Superintendent of the City of Sheffield mused wistfully on the idea that one day there might be a battery that would last 23 hours and take only one hour to charge. We are still waiting – but we are much, much closer!
The economic drawback of electrics was their initial price. Although the running units were much less complicated than a petrol engine and gearbox, the materials that went into them were much more expensive, like the copper for the windings of the motor and the nickel in the Edison battery.
In 1915 the lead-acid battery for a two ton truck cost £200 but was expected to last two years. The equivalent Edison nickel-iron battery cost £400 but was 2½ cwt (280 lbs) lighter and expected to last four years. Half of the cost of a typical electric was accounted for by the battery.
One council officer reported in 1915 that to do the same job of carrying coal, an electric wagon was offered at £1,100, whereas a steam wagon was exactly half the price. In response financing of battery-electrics became more sophisticated. The initial cost of the vehicles could be met with hire-purchase schemes. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne a means was devised where operators could rent batteries at a rate per mile, and swap them over on demand at the hiring firm’s outlets around the city.
Turning away from the batteries, let’s look at the rest of the running gear in these fairly early battery-electrics. There were several approaches.
One was to have a single electric motor placed under the chassis. The drive fed a differential unit whose two output shafts were connected to each rear wheel by a chain drive. At this time a prop shaft was impractical because contemporary units could not tolerate the levels of torque produced by the motors at their operating extremes.
The chain drive arrangement was employed on the General Vehicle (or GV) machines imported from America. It was of course rather noisy.
An alternative was having a separate traction motor for each rear wheel with no axle, but a suspended frame holding the motors in place. This was the arrangement favoured by Electromobile.
The Walker company (which focused on light delivery vans) had its ‘balanced drive’ system, where a rear axle casing held the traction motor and differential to take the drive direct to each wheel.
Beyond the basic rear wheel drive arrangements, some electrics were more exotic. One of the Fram Paris five ton refuse collectors was demonstrated in London in 1914. It had a high open driving position above the battery. And beneath it there was a motor driving each wheel. In spite of the enormous un-sprung weight and presumably incredibly heavy steering, this arrangement offered a lower loading height behind the cab to make work easier for the loaders.
This front-wheel-drive set-up was also employed by some of the vehicles built as Orwells.
The control of these early battery-electrics was by a controller in the cab with a handle that could be used to gradually increase the power applied to the wheels. On an electric motor the torque produced rises as the speed falls, so various safety features were incorporated to prevent a sudden high voltage being applied which could damage the battery and drive train, or even cause an accident.
Even though they were available, few electrics were fitted with an ampere-hour meter that would give some indication of available range and whether the battery was being over-drained.
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