We shall begin and end the account of this decade with estimates of the numbers of vehicles in use. In 1930 there were about 1,750 electric vehicles employed in Britain. That probably accounted for at least three quarters of all the EVs that had been built up to that date. By contrast there were 7,750 steamers and 335,000 petrol machines. So electrics accounted for roughly half of one per cent of the total parc. (‘Parc’ is a term that refers to the total number of vehicles in use at a point in time.)
Refuse collection remained the most prominent application of electric vehicles into the 1930s, but the vehicles were becoming more sophisticated.
In 1931 for instance, Sheffield bought two 5 ton Electricars chassis fitted with novel ways to deal with more refuse on a round. One had an Eagle-Newey body which compacted the load within four rotating hoppers. The other had a Faun (or possibly Shefflex) body which could be raised to the vertical, compacting the load under its own weight (the so-called fore and aft tipper). Both of these systems would have required extra battery capacity and photographs suggest these vehicles had an additional battery mounted in a large cabinet behind the cab.
The same year Sheffield bought a seven ton Electricars articulated unit, with a Cable-Eagle refuse collector trailer, well capable of handling the city’s steep hills. And in 1935 the city bought six large three-axle Electricars with Faun fore and aft tipper bodies capable of handling 15 cu yds of waste.
In 1933 Scammell introduced its mechanical horse, a compact three-wheel tractor unit that could move trailers around congested goods depots and run local deliveries. Westminster City Council saw the potential of this concept and thought it could be applied to electric vehicles.
Electricars worked with Scammell to produce a battery-powered version of its three-wheel tractor – the TV. Westminster bought a fleet of 26 in 1935, which could be coupled up to trailers designed for various functions: refuse collection, gully emptying, and street washing and sprinkling. Some of the trailers had electrical connections, for example to drive pumps.
The council also ran a number of Scammell mechanical horses, so the controls of the electrics were designed to mimic those of the Scammells as far as possible, meaning drivers could be assigned to either type. A major factor in the choice of electrics was that most of the operations would be done at night in a densely populated part of London.
The fleet was housed in a 60,000 sq ft depot with automatic charging facilities – an innovation that did away with the need for someone to keep a close eye on each battery as it was charging.
If the 1920s was the decade of the big electrics, the 1930s saw the rise of the small electrics.
Modest numbers of larger machines went to work in municipal applications as we have seen, but the main growth was in nimble vans, mobile shops and, latterly, milk floats. The role of the electric vehicle in supplanting the horse was reinforced, as was the fact that in any application where road speed and long range were required, the internal combustion vehicle would be pre-eminent.
The most prominent manufacturer of these smaller electrics was A. E. Morrison of Leicester. It entered the market with a Morrison-Electric 12 cwt van for a local baker in 1932. Operations expanded very quickly, to the extent that it moved to a new factory just outside the city in 1935. Sales were made as far away as New Zealand but it was building up a solid base in the UK. Key to its success was the engineering and business genius of A. C. Morrison, who led the firm away from being a broad-based producer of various engineering products and designed a succession of clever and commercially successful models.
In 1936 Morrisons and Electricars were brought together into a new firm called Associated Electric Vehicle Manufacturers, apparently at the behest of Young Accumulators, one of the main traction battery makers at the time. Between them the two producers claimed to be turning out 70% of the battery-electrics built in Britain immediately before the Second World War.
Several other firms got going in the 1930s to build smaller electrics, but none grew as big as Morrison.
And not all the small electrics were brand new. From 1932 Harrod’s, the London department store, built a fleet of urban delivery vans in its own workshops, incorporating some parts recovered from venerable Walker and other machines. Examples lasted until the 1960s.
Aside from the usual objections of low speed, limited range, constrained carrying capacity, long recharging time and high initial cost, until the early 1930s one factor that held the electrics back from wider adoption was the charging arrangements. For a long while only larger organisations could afford to invest in the complex charging infrastructure required.
However, the introduction of reasonably-priced automatic charging apparatus meant it became feasible to run a small fleet successfully. This was helped by the gradual standardisation of electrical current supply, at 415 V three-phase and 240 V single-phase as more and more local power stations were hooked up to the growing National Grid network. In addition the battery makers would send technicians round to operators about every three months to check the health of their batteries.
As the extent of electric vehicle use widened, the manufacturers realised they could not hope to get away with selling standard products. Instead the sale of an electric vehicle (or a fleet) was about understanding the prospect’s planned use for the vehicles, the mileage they would cover, the stops per mile, the nature of the terrain, etc.
In this way, the manufacturer would adjust the choice of battery and motor so that the vehicle was optimised. It should carry no more battery cells than necessary (except for a prudent bit of extra capacity to allow for the degradation of battery performance over its life) to keep the right balance between the unladen weight, payload, speed and range.
By this means electrics were seen increasingly in the service of coal merchants, general carriers, retail stores and dairy companies – outfits like Darbyshire’s Prize Bread of Blackpool that invested in a fleet of Electromobiles for local deliveries in 1932.
Battery-electric door-to-door milk delivery was first seriously promoted in the early 1930s. There were still thousands of horse-drawn floats conveying milk to doorsteps across the land. Ladling out milk from churns into containers was giving way to the practice of returnable glass milk bottles, speeding up deliveries. The working pattern was very predictable, as was the load.
This pattern had been proven to be suitable for electrics in the refuse collection application; the only big difference was that a milk float set out fully loaded and returned partially loaded (with empty bottles). In addition the electric was a more hygienic way to carry milk than behind a horse, it was quiet for early morning rounds, and the depot could be much more compact.
Instead of extensive stores of foraging materials and stabling, electric floats could be close parked as they were charged. The electric would also be much easier to start in cold weather than a petrol machine, upon which stop-start work would take a higher toll. In fact not all electric milk floats replaced horses; in some cases there was a deliberate move away from the cheaper petrol to the more expensive, but more dependable, electric.
Express Dairies was a pioneer in using battery-electrics – early examples looking very much like their horse-drawn forebears. A GV 10 cwt float from about 1930 has a slab fronted door-less cab and looks designed for the driver to control it standing up.
Although most milk floats were built to the same width as contemporary petrol vans, there was a market for very narrow vehicles. These had the ability to serve confined streets and housing developments that conventionally-sized floats could not reach. Such vehicles were a number of 10 cwt Electricar floats with milk bottles stored in cabinets and a standing driving position, purchased by Midland Counties Dairies in 1932 of Birmingham.
There were growing milk-delivery fleets in the provinces. Midland Counties Dairies had bought its first battery float in 1928 and within a decade had over 150 in use. Like many operators in that era for all kinds of vehicle, it supported local manufacturers like Electricars (Birmingham), Morrison (Leicester) and especially Midland (Leamington Spa). It was so loyal to Midland that when production ended in 1957 it bought up enough parts to complete two more vehicles at its Wolverhampton works.
By the mid-1930s the basic layout of battery-electrics had reached a new standard, whatever their size. The motor was centrally-mounted under the cab or just behind it. The battery would be mounted in panniers in the wheelbase. A prop shaft took the drive to a differential and thence to the rear wheels. The controller was in the cab. Battery-electrics incorporated more and more components used on internal-combustion vehicles although for any given payload rating the components had to be sturdier and heavier to account for the high unladen weight owing to the battery.
Two fundamental changes in vehicle technology came about in the 1930s.
Pneumatic tyres began to appear on lighter electrics in the 1920s but it took several years before tyres rated to carry a ton and more became available. Thus even in 1931 the big Sheffield Electricars had solid tyres, whereas those supplied only four years later rode on air. In spite of the much better ride, and less wear and tear on components, one drawback of pneumatics was that their greater diameter had the effect of raising the loading height.
This particularly affected refuse collectors, and caused problems when a body arrangement optimised for solid tyres had to be adapted to cope with pneumatics. Thus Garrett had quite a bit of re-engineering to do in order to enable the early Glasgow GTZs to be re-shod in the 1930s.
The other big change was the arrival of the diesel engine, which revolutionised the market for larger vehicles. The first British diesel lorry was actually produced by Garrett in 1928 with a McLaren Benz three-cylinder oil engine. Garretts failed to produce a reliable machine, but firms like AEC, ERF and Leyland did and within a few years the more frugal diesel engine was taking a large part of the heavier goods vehicle market away from its more profligate petrol cousin. This may well have helped to undermine the financial argument for electric vehicles in some applications.
Proponents of electrics kept reiterating the old arguments in their favour and coming up with new ones. In addition to all that stuff about low operating costs and long life, they pointed out they attracted lower insurance premiums than petrol vehicles because of their slow speed and less risk of fire, and also they ultimately ran on domestic coal rather than imported oil – a nod to economic patriotism.
However, the widening choice of petrol (and then diesel) vehicles and their low prices (thanks in part to mass-production) meant that in every part of the market electrics would face fierce competition.
For example, when Vauxhall Motors introduced its Bedford commercial vehicle range in 1931 a factory-built long-wheelbase two ton dropside truck cost £260, much less than half the price of a two ton electric. 12,000 Bedfords (including buses and vehicles for export) were sold in 1932, 16,000 the following year. Just this one company was probably making more than fifteen times the total output of all the UK battery-electric manufacturers combined.
During the 1930s electric vehicles started to shake off their dowdy image. This was the age of streamlining and, even though any serious effort at streamlining a vehicle unlikely to exceed 20 mph was pretty pointless, several electric manufacturers gave their new models simple but elegant lines reflecting the taste of the times.
This was only possible because most models now had fully-enclosed cabs, although some delivery models deliberately shunned doors. A typically approach was to have a one piece curved front panel below a two-piece flat windscreen. Even so, everything was created from metal sheets; there were no pressings.
That slightly more attractive image also spread to bigger vehicles. The City of Birmingham had amassed a fleet of electric refuse collectors from the 1920s, and built a plant to burn refuse to generate the current to charge them, like Glasgow and Sheffield. In spite of the progressive approach, its early fleet of GV solid-tyred six-wheelers looked archaic. A more modern style was needed. So the Electricars DV4 machines introduced from 1938 look very handsome indeed, with fully enclosed cabs, subtle streamlining and a body with profiled sides and roller shutters to keep the dust in check.
By the end of the 1930s the choice of makes of battery-electrics had changed considerably from ten years before. Gone were Electromobile, Garrett and Walker. Survivors from the 1920s included Electricars and Tilling-Stevens.
But there was a clutch of newcomers: Cleco, Erewash, Graiseley, Metrovick, Midland, Morrison, Murphy, Q, Sunbeam, Victor and Wilson. Many electrics were now being built by firms which had no previous experience of making road vehicles of any kind.
Certainly the total fleet had doubled in the decade to about 3,500 battery-electrics, but with those vehicles having an operating life of at least 15 years, that was a lot of firms fighting over an annual potential demand measured in hundreds of vehicles not thousands. And that 3,500 has to be set against the 478,000 internal combustion engine commercial vehicles in use in 1939. Their share of the parc had only crept up to 0.7%.
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