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Experiments in a "mature" industry

After the technologically fluid early years, automobiles became remarkably uniform in a relatively short time. The front-engine, shaft-driven, internal-combustion car appeared by 1901 and became the overwhelming choice of motorists by the 1910s. Gasoline-powered vehicles dominated the market for most of the twentieth century. Yet, individuals and companies continued to experiment with different motor fuels and other types of innovation did change vehicles over time.

The Smithsonian's collection includes a number of experimental and innovative vehicles that were created after World War II, when the automobile industry was mature. The reception of these experiments—notably the EV1—suggest that it is hard to change automobiles' fuel source after the infrastructure for building, maintaining, and fueling gasoline-powered vehicles became so deeply embedded in the landscape and culture. Furthermore, by the end of the twentieth century, most people had grown to expect cars to behave in certain ways, and to have certain attributes, and that seems to have limited the accceptance of alternative fuels.

Gasoline and tires were rationed during World War II, and the supply of passenger cars dried up as factories converted to wartime production. Immediately after World War II, pent up demand for automobiles helped give independent car companies like Nash and Studebaker a larger share of the business. A number of new players tried to enter the automobile business, as well. The west-coast based Kaiser shipping company created Kaiser-Frazer, which began making cars in Detroit. In Chicago, Preston Tucker started the Tucker Corporation.

Advertisement for Nash Airflyte
Advertisement for Nash Airflyte
Advertisement for Kaiser Traveler
Advertisement for Kaiser Traveler

American attempts to create new automaking concerns after World War II were unsuccesful, and independents quickly faded from sight. By 1955, the Big Three—Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors—sold 95 percent of the new cars in the United States. Challenges to the Big Three's hold on the market for automobiles came first from German and then from Japanese car manufacturers. Those companies, which gained increasingly large shares of the U.S. car market in the 1970s and 1980s, also made gasoline-powered cars.

Although the major manufacturers continued to produce the millions of gasoline-powered automobiles that were the bread and butter of their business, they did conduct a few highly publicized tests of differently fueled vehicles.

In the 1960s, Chrysler Motor Company tested a car with a turbine engine with a view toward putting it on the market. Fifty turbine-engined vehicles were produced and tested between 1963 and 1966. Turbine engines powered the jet age, and part of their appeal was that they were “modern.” There were also some potential technological benefits—turbines had fewer moving parts, which should have translated into less maintenance. But the turbine car, although stylish, was inefficient in the stop and go of traffic. Chrysler's fifty cars were driven more than a million miles, but they didn't become a fixture on the postwar transportation scene.

'You have so much to forget...'
"You have so much to forget..."

When cars first became a part of the landscape, the United States sat on huge domestic oil reserves, making gasoline seem like a good cheap source of energy for transportation. Since the end of World War II, as the U.S. has become a net importer of oil, as the number of cars in the country has risen to record levels, and as some people have begun to become more sensitive to the effect of fossil fuels on the planet, the impetus for finding different fuel sources for motor vehicles has been seen as more important in some circles.

General Motors' EV1 was an attempt to create a zero-emissions electric vehicle (not taking into consideration the emissions from the power plants that produce electricity).

The EV1 was, according to GM, the "first modern-era electric car." Electrics had been popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, but had fallen out of favor. GM and its partners designed their new car from the ground up. The stylish EV1 caused quite a stir when it hit the roads. In 1996, according to CNN's Charles Feldman, “The EV1's sleek design rivals the looks of many conventional sports cars. But unlike gas-powered automobiles, it has a large battery under the hood and lacks the standard exhaust pipe—because the car produces no exhaust.”

1997 Generation 1 EV-1
1997 Generation 1 EV-1
EV1 chargers
EV1 chargers

The EV1 experiment didn't last long. The EV1 had a relatively short range and a high price tag, limiting its commercial viability. Plus, the emergence and unexpected popularity of hybrid-engine vehicles like the Toyota Prius seemed to many to be much more practical than building a new network of charging stations around the country to replace gas stations.

The social and political winds changed, too. Despite the rise in environmental consciousness, many people began to drive vehicles with poor gas mileage—particularly SUVs which, for the purposes of CAFE standards, weren't classified as passenger cars mileage even though people used them that way. It wasn't simply individuals who contributed to the climate surrounding the EV1's demise; the state of California backed away from its demand that a percentage of cars be zero-emission vehicles, making the need for companies to manufacture an all-electric car much less pressing.

Although the EV1 had its fans, by 2004, General Motors had called in the leases on the cars, and its attempt to mass market an electric vehicle was over.

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