The documentary “Who Killed The Electric Car” pointing an accusatory finger at General Motors is actually a record of a second premature ending for EVs, and the first die-off of EVs happened in part because they were seen as positioned for women.
This observation of early 20th century history was made during a brief video of Jay Leno being interviewed by the Washington Post while driving his 1909 Baker Electric in his famous garage.
Leno’s observation does not come across as discriminatory in any way, but rather, as a benign statement of fact as he sees it. Women in the early 20th century did not wield the buying power of today, did not drive to the degree that they now do, and EVs were “extremely popular” with them, he said.
Why? Women did not have to crank-start them, Leno observed, gas cars were dirty and smelly, and EVs were smooth and quiet.
Further, the marketing and the accessorizing of the electric car to appeal to women appears to have been a deal breaker for men, Leno observed. Leno’s Baker has a vanity mirror with face powder dispenser essentially suggesting this was a catering to women.
As is true today, Leno observes, it was a tough sell to get men to buy what was perceived as a woman’s car.
Obviously a number of issues were also at play, but for those who more-often consider gasoline replaced EVs in the early decades of the 20th century for more obvious reasons – cheap fuel, powerful, long-range – Leno’s footnote on history reveals another nuance less often heard.
His Baker is an example from a time when EVs competed more evenly for market share against early examples of gasoline and steam-powered automobiles. And as noted, despite early EVs with heavy lead-acid batteries having potential against then-anemic gas burners, we know the path history took.
And as for the objection of hand cranking, the electric starter was first introduced on a 1912 Cadillac (does that mean GM helped kill the first electric car too?) and gas cars became more reliable and family friendly.
But now with EVs coming back, the paradigm is entirely different. Men and women buy them, and GM has helped erase bad feelings from its 1990s EV1 recall and crushing with its gas-electric Volt. Leno actually has a Volt, drives it regularly using negligible gas, and is a proponent of the technology.
There are now more than a dozen pure EVs being sold by various makers to Americans, albeit several are limited market.
The culture today is of course entirely different today, and while EVs are still relegated to niche status, they are making a comeback even in the face of conventional car horsepower wars and a veritable cornucopia of choices for now-mature internal-combustion tech.