As we enter the 1920s we can broadly sum up where battery-electric commercial vehicles in Britain had got to. They could be counted in the very low thousands, whilst petrol-driven equivalents were already in the tens upon tens of thousands. Whereas prior to the First World War the electric vehicles on British roads were overwhelmingly imported from the United States, by 1920 a small domestic manufacturing industry was beginning to develop.
Technology was steadily evolving but there were no huge breakthroughs. However there was some pretty sophisticated engineering, as in the Walker balanced drive and the front wheel drive layout of the Orwells. There was also useful carry over of the better components going on to petrol-driven vehicles, like more efficient transmissions, better tyres and higher quality bearings.
Whether they were of the lead-acid or nickel-iron type, the batteries were heavy, expensive and had a very limited life. They had been developed to be more robust, and charging losses (the difference between the charge being absorbed by the battery and what it was supplied with) had been reduced but progress was incremental.
On the other hand, in order to lug all that weight around, electrics were ruggedly built and so generally outlasted their petrol cousins by many years. This feature was of course to be a drawback for manufacturers because it hampered the sale of new models and the survival of very basic-looking machines engendered a belief that electrics were antiquated.
The small number of lightweight electrics (with payloads below two tons) were employed on local delivery work, especially in London by firms like Harrod’s. Larger machines were employed by councils and their electricity departments, with a few in the hands of brewers, parcel carriers and railway companies.
Vehicle design was strongly influenced by the horse-drawn wagons they were intended to replace, so generally there was no proper cab. The driver (and any co-workers) sat on a bench behind a bulkhead over which in another guise reins might be strung. The sides were open and the only weather protection was possibly a canopy and maybe a fabric shield. And this area was high up over the front wheels.
There was little effort to make these early electrics more efficient in their intended operation than horse-drawn equivalents. The driving area was awkward to get into, the loading line for material like refuse was above shoulder height, and whilst the workmanship might have been good their appearance was generally ugly. In a 1943 book about battery-electrics, the author went as far as to describe most vehicles of this era as ‘grotesque’.
Electric trucks in the UK might have had a far from glamorous image, but their durability was impressive. Even on intensive stop-start work, there were examples clocking up over 100,000 miles of service.
The First World War had a damaging impact on many British firms. Agricultural equipment makers found that during the hostilities many of their traditional markets had been taken over by American suppliers. Outfits like Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies and Garrett hoped that battery-electrics would be a way to help restore their fortunes.
Meanwhile a number of new entrants to the British market like Newton were prepared to buy business by selling vehicles at uneconomically low prices in the expectation that after sales services could recoup some profit. But low prices were not enough to stimulate a serious market shift towards electrics – even with discounts they were still much more expensive than their petrol and steam-powered equivalents.
The most significant new player in the 1920s was Electricars. Edison had faced resistance to imports after the war as many buyers (especially local authorities) wanted to purchase British vehicles built by British workers – ex-soldiers who had served their country
Edison had already set up an operation in Birmingham to prepare imported electrics for use in Britain, and in response to these sentiments set up Electricars as a separate entity in 1919, and sold it to British interests in 1920. It focussed mainly (but not entirely) on larger models and became a major supplier to those local authorities.
The major development in the 1920s was certainly the growth in battery-electric municipal vehicles, especially for refuse collection. Indeed by 1925 this was the main application.
Sheffield was one of the pioneers. The council had purchased four 2 tonners in 1916 which convincingly showed their superiority over horses. In 1919 Sheffield Health Committee recommended spending £100,000 to buy 51 refuse collectors and the infrastructure to support them.
They did not invest quite that much but during the 1920s electrics became the backbone of the council fleet, with Edisons, Garretts and GVs. For example, 1923 saw Sheffield buy nine chain-driven five ton Garrett refuse wagons (at £830 each) and one with worm drive that cost £1,100.
Not all the vehicles were as hefty as these. One was a dainty 30 cwt Electricars on 20 inch solid-tyred wheels, presumably bought to get access into narrow yards and ginnels and provide a low loading height. Introduced in 1927, it had a wheelbase of only seven feet and a turning circle of 13 feet. It featured a clever arrangement so that a cover over part of the refuse container could be opened by depressing a treadle with the foot before tipping in a bin’s worth of rubbish.
Over subsequent decades the city was one of the most progressive authorities, introducing innovations in electric vehicle design and operation until the 1960s (and as we shall see, becoming a pioneer again in the twenty-first century).
Garretts were a popular basis for refuse collectors. Hackney had a fleet of 24, supplied around 1921, which were fitted with a pair of tipping tubs (similar to skips, mounted transversely). At the depot, each tub was hoisted up by a travelling crane which discharged the refuse ready for burning in the council’s furnace.
In 1924 Norwich took delivery of a Garrett articulated refuse collector, the trailer of which could be tipped. One extraordinary Garrett innovation was a system whereby the driver could control the vehicle by walking along beside it, using a detachable steering wheel and control handle.
Some large cities created ingenious closed systems which actually made money. One was Glasgow.
Glasgow Corporation needed a better way to collect and handle refuse from the large complexes of tenements in Govan, south of the river Clyde. This had to be done at night so petrol- or steam-driven vehicles were undesirable. A number of manufacturers were approached, but only Garrett came forward with a viable proposal.
In 1926 it built an extraordinary-looking five ton prototype called the GTZ. The single-person cab (cabin would be a better description) was mounted ahead of the front wheels. The battery was sat above the front axle. Thereafter the frame dropped very low to allow for a custom-built body designed for refuse to be loaded easily from the kerbside. The following year it delivered the first of 54 GTZ vehicles with bigger cabs, to work the rounds in place of horses.
When each vehicle was full, with up to 14½ cu yds of refuse, it would proceed to the new Craigton Road works in Govan. There an overhead winch would hoist one side of the body to empty the refuse into a collector. After the valuable metal content was separated, the rest was burned and the heat used to raise steam to drive an electricity generator in the works power station.
In 1939 this operation handled almost 160,000 tons of refuse, and generated 39 million kWh of electricity. Only a fraction of this was needed to recharge the fleet, so the rest was sold to the corporation electricity department thus greatly reducing the cost of the refuse operation to the Glasgow ratepayer.
By 1939 Glasgow had 67 electric refuse collectors, including a smaller second batch of GTZs (fitted with pneumatic tyres). The last of the GTZ fleet was not retired until 1964.
They were not the last electrics to be delivered to Glasgow even if they were the longest-lived. A small fleet of Metrovicks was added in the late 1930s, and Tilling-Stevens supplied a few in 1950. But by the late 1930s the reducing purchase and operating costs of diesel and petrol-driven vehicles became inescapable and reluctantly Glasgow moved away from battery-electric traction.
Even as if refuse collection wasn’t particularly glamorous, electrics were put to work doing even more unpleasant jobs. In Warrington five Orwells were bought in 1921 as night soil collectors. At that time 14,000 out of the 17,500 houses in the town had no piped sewage system. These two ton vehicles, each with a capacity of 72 pails of… well, you know what, visited 500 properties every day.
And in Glasgow, the council acquired an Electromobile in 1925 to handle offal from the city’s slaughterhouse. The vehicle was made as compact as possible to be able to navigate the passageways below the abattoir proper so that up to four tons of ‘wet material’ could be discharged into the body down chutes. Then it was taken away to be tipped or processed we know not where.
Municipal authorities also purchased electrics for jobs other than refuse collection. Almost certainly the largest was the GV Giant, a 10 ton articulated unit built in 1924 for Manchester Corporation to move cable drums. Its overall length was 38 feet and its most unusual feature was that the entrance to the driving area (‘cab’ would be too gracious a term for this crude shelter) was a wooden gate in the middle of the front panel.
One particularly interesting application was the tower wagon. Today we have ‘cherry pickers’ to get access to streetlights and other elevated equipment. The tower wagon had a telescoping series of square frames that could push a platform up to whatever working height was required. It was an ideal application for electric vehicles with their low centre of gravity.
They were used by corporations and utilities for jobs like changing light bulbs in streetlights and cleaning them, but also servicing the aerial equipment used by tramways and trolleybus systems (also powered by electricity). An early user was Liverpool where a GV electric was employed that could take the platform up to 35 ft above the ground.
In ‘Electric Vehicles’, published in 1925, Charles Marshall summarised the general specification of electric vehicles at that time. Curiously perhaps, Marshall often referred to these machines as ‘cars’ – which can be a bit confusing when trying to distinguish between commercial vehicles and private automobiles.
The frames were similar to that of petrol-powered vehicles, made up of steel channels. The robustness of the frame was to carry the extra weight of the battery, rather than compensate for vibrations of the engine or the jolts of changing speeds with a crash gearbox. The suspension would be elliptical springs, specified to minimise shocks to a fragile battery.
The motors would generally be series-wound, with occasional use of compound-wound machines to permit regenerative braking (where energy from braking is converted into a current back into the battery). Vehicles might have from one up to (rarely) four motors. Having separate motors for each rear wheel obviated the need for a complex differential. So did opting for front wheel drive, but this tended to make the steering heavy.
Drum controllers were the norm, enabling various combinations of connections across the battery to achieve different torque and speed settings. The final drive might either be through a prop shaft and differential, or via a chain drive. Solid tyres remained pretty well universal. The instruments might include an odometer (mileage recorder) and (at last) ampere-hour meter as aids to judging how much range was left from the battery.
As the 1920s proceeded domestic makes almost entirely supplanted the American ones. Indeed, the enthusiasm for electrics in the US was starting to wane as the petrol (or gasoline) powered machines became ubiquitous thanks to heavy investments in their design and development, and their fall in prices thanks to mass production. The comparative slowness of larger battery trucks saw their sales dwindle in America, whilst the use of lighter vehicles for delivery duties became their core market – as it would in Britain in the 1930s.
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