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Making Sense of "Failed" Car Technology

The Smithsonian recently collected an EV1—an all electric car, built in 1996. The sporty two seater joins a collection that has been growing since the Smithsonian acquired its first car—an 1894 Balzer—in 1899. Both the first and the latest vehicle to join the collection are experimental vehicles, but in the intervening 100 plus years, the landscape of automobility in the United States changed significantly, making what counts as an experiment a very different kettle of fish.

When Stephen M. Balzer built his “experimental 4 wheeled road carriage,” most Americans had never seen a horseless carriage, and the vehicles that would come to be called automobiles were a new and fluid technology with an as-yet uncertain future. Inventors used a wide range of styles and different fuel sources, and there were few agreed upon conventions. Some cars had steering mechanisms (usually wheels or tillers) on the right, others had them on the left. Most cars were open top. Lights, windshields, horns—all kinds of features we take for granted now—were not standard parts of early vehicles. In a very real sense, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all cars were experiments.

In contrast, when General Motors Corporation set out to reintroduce all-electric passenger cars to U.S. motorists at the end of the twentieth century, the United States was teeming with automobiles and there was an average of one car for every licensed driver in the country. Cars came with all kinds of standard features and conveniences that consumers had grown to expect as a part and parcel of their motoring experiences. Any experimental car would need to have those features if it were to compete, or the public would have to be persuaded that such a car without them could be just as useful as any gasoline-powered vehicle.

Furthermore, in the early years of automobillity, the search for fuel could be a challenge for gasoline and electric motorists alike. Very quickly, however, gas companies built a thriving network of stations that created a convenient fueling system for gasoline automobiles. Electric cars also needed an infrastructure of fueling places if they were to become a significant part of the 21st century automotive landscape.

1894 Balzer Automobile
1894 Balzer Automobile
1997 Generation 1 EV1
1997 Generation 1 EV1
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