Doug Nye

On a bookshelf at home is a bound run of the early French motoring journal La France Automobile, which was launched in 1896 by the co-founder of the Automobile Club de France, Paul Meyan. 

In November 1898, Meyan ran a timed hillclimb at Chanteloup, just outside Paris. The course was only a mile and a furlong, and its gradient 1-in-12. But 54 cars entered, 47 finished, and it was won by the Belgian Camille Jenatzy in his CITA electric car, averaging 18mph. First blow for Formula E?

Meyan ran another course de vitesse on a 2000-metre level road in Achères Park, St Germain. The first kilometre provided standing-start speeds, the second a flying-start maximum velocity. Meyan’s aristocratic friend Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat’s Jeantaud electric – powered by a single 36hp motor fed by Fulmen non-rechargeable batteries – clocked 63.157kph or 39.245mph through the flying km and was acclaimed as setting the first world land speed record.

Chasseloup-Laubat’s time through that flying km had been 57secs. Yet most spectators – and certainly the Count himself – had already travelled faster by train, and, deflatingly, the contemporary push-bike record through a flying km was then 56secs – a whole second faster. It would be Laubat’s rival, Jenatzy, who would soon punch the new-fangled LSR beyond pedal-power in his similarly electric car La Jamais Contente.

That was all 121 years ago. But right now, I’m chewing over whether to replace my much-loved, clean-burn, twin-turbocharged diesel car with another, or is it really time to go green(er) and go electric?

I would do so but for none of the current crop of electric cars appealing (to me), and my underlying scepticism about what the environmental campaigners and longing-to-be-loved politicians want us to think.

Way back at the dawn of motoring, would-be buyers had a choice of internal combustion vehicles burning spirit or petrol, or steamers burning spirit or coal, or indeed electrics. Outside the main towns and cities, roads were generally poor so most early private motoring was confined to short distances or just around town. So range was not then a particular consideration.

Early internal combustion engines could be a real pain to start. The twiddle and hand-crank procedure often demanded technical knowledge, skill and muscle. Similarly, warm-up time of up to an hour counted against steam cars, and coal burners were dirty. So it’s no surprise that clean, simple, switch-on-and-go electric gained popularity.

In the 1890s electric taxis filled city streets – the London fleet being charmingly nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’. But for the electric car it all then went wrong, as oil-derived petrol became cheaper and the engine technology improved, as did road networks, and filling stations proliferated.

“The battery in something like a Tesla can weigh as much as an entire car”

One side-effect of such social liberation has now so damaged our planet’s climate that tremendous political attention pushes today for alternative-technology transport. OK, I’d happily buy electric if there was a model which provided the performance, capacity, comfort and style I like, combined with a 400-mile range – and could be refuelled in a 5-10min service stop.

Weight is the enemy of performance, and the battery alone in something like a Tesla can weigh more than some alternative-power cars do complete. Where recharging is concerned, the downside multiplies. Judging (generously) that recharging batteries takes six times as long as filling a petrol tank, to replace a typical 20-pump motorway service station with equivalent quick-charging points would need 120 120-kilowatt superchargers, requiring a 14.4-megawatt substation – which I’m told is equivalent to the demand of 32,000 homes. And that’s just for one station…

National charging demand would far outstrip current generating capacity. And could the transmission network cope? I’m told no. Then add the environmental cost of generation… and of fresh infrastructure… and of producing (and later scrapping or recycling) the millions of batteries. Whoever comes up with a rapid-recharge power store the size and weight of a fuel tank will make a killing.

If the UK’s 38.4 million registered vehicles each lugged around 700-plus kg of lithium, cobalt and nickel – would there be enough? And what of the environmental cost of mining such metals? Cost is relative to demand. Allegedly VW’s strategists are forecasting a 42-fold increase in the price of cobalt alone.

Yet hydrogen fuel cell technology seems to have been forgotten. The prototype Riversimple hydrogen car – which offers an even cleaner alternative – can run for 300 miles on a 74-litre tank, so 400 miles is within its grasp, and it takes three minutes to refuel. 

In the early 1900s, as the pioneering electric days of de Chasseloup-Laubat, Jenatzy, and those ‘Hummingbirds’ began to wane, their proponents railed about the relative dangers of using highly inflammable, potentially explosive petrol as an alternative fuel. Now that same mindset bleats about the dangers of hydrogen gas. But anyone who has ever witnessed a battery runaway reaction creating an inextinguishable fire will also appreciate the dangers of sparky cars, too.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s

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