Car News: Scotland’s Electric Car

  A weekly look at all that sucks in the automotive world, and some good bits

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The entrance to Grampian’s Transport Museum

This is the story of yet another Scottish pioneer whose genius went unrecognised, or at least undeveloped in his day, though not by his many admirers, Robert Davidson

In an early Car News I reported on my visit to chat show entertainer Jay Leno’s garage in Los Angeles, remarking he owned one of the earliest electric vehicles, The Baker Electric. The model was beloved by Clara, Henry Ford’s wife, who refused to drive one of his ‘noisy, smelly contraptions’. In her day, electric cars were more powerful than the hand cranked, spit, pop and bang petrol driven variety.

One was sold to Thomas Edison as his first car. He’s designed the nickel-iron batteries that lasted yonks. It was a four-seater, with most of its weight being the batteries. In 1902 the company set out to prove its electric carriage superior to gasoline jalopies and arranged a race in which they would drive at 60 mph – practically supercar performance for the day. Unfortunately, the steering went wonky and it careened off the highway killing two spectators. Not unnaturally, buyers interest waned. They turned to petrol vehicles, oil companies rubbing their hands with glee.

The Baker is more or less a tall horseless carriage powered by a group of lead-acid batteries offering push button start, tiller steering, and a range of 80 miles. In his absorbing three-part documentary The People’s Car, aging Top Gear laddite James May also draws attention to this vehicle, adding, he thought we’ve not made much progress, “The irony is, today’s electric cars offer not much more of a range”. Time has come to edit that section. A Kia Niro travels 250 real road miles, and any Tesla well over 300.

However, the Baker Electric was no ground-breaking star. We Scots got there first. A reader, noticing my lament over the lack of car building in Scotland despite us training some of the best automobile engineers in the world, pointed me in the direction of our own electric car made in Scotland, its history exhibited in the Grampian Transport Museum.

The museum is no Versailles of automobile art, more large storage sheds, but that shouldn’t put off potential visitors. It sits among trees in the village of Alford, under an hour’s journey from Aberdeen. It opened it doors in 1983 and now houses an eclectic range of vehicles as signpost in the history of the motor car.

So, what is the Scottish Electric car? Well, it is even older than the Baker Electric. The  Electric – that’s the full name, is the invention of Robert Davidson, a chemist, engineer and inventor born in Aberdeen in 1804. Like some of the Scots I feature in the ignored and forgotten biography series, Davidson is credited with creating the world’s first electric vehicle. Who was Robert Davidson? Wikipedia has his details:

“Robert Davidson (1804–1894) was a Scottish inventor who built the first known electric locomotive in 1837. He was a lifelong resident of Aberdeen, northeast Scotland, where he was a prosperous chemist and dyer, amongst other ventures. Davidson was educated at Marischal College, where he studied second and third year classes of Marischal College from 1819-1821. He got this education in return for being a lab assistant. In the 1820s he set up in business close to the Aberdeen-Inverurie Canal, at first supplying yeast, before becoming involved in the manufacture and supply of chemicals.”

Nobody as yet appears to know its exact form; did it have four wheels or three? What is known is that at an exhibition in Aberdeen in 1839, it was Davidson who first showed a working EV to the public. That is sixty years before the Baker Electric. That might appear not much of an accomplishment but keep in mind this was the mid-1800s; electricity (or electromagnetism to be exact) was an unknown. Scientists hadn’t got as far as testing, categorising or quantifying it.  

You have to paint a picture of his day: no units of electricity – no volts, amps, watts, joules or ohms. But by his cleverness and dedication, Davidson was making it propel vehicles, vehicles carrying people, and all before anybody knew what the hell he was talking about or how it worked. It was magical. 

Davidson’s EV used a very simple battery, essentially a wooden box that held a liquid-acid electrolyte and a series of zinc plates. This was connected to an electromagnetic motor of Davidson’s own design – a replica of which is on display at the museum alongside a mock-up of his battery. To ‘recharge’ a primary cell like Davidson’s, the liquid electrolyte – dilute sulphuric acid in this case – was a bit of a fiddle, empty and then refill. Not until 1859 – two decades after Davidson exhibited his first EV – were rechargeable lead-acid batteries invented in France.

Believe it or not, Aberdeen’s own pioneer went on to create the world’s first electric railway locomotive in 1842; it ran for the first time on the Edinburgh to Glasgow line, a breathtaking 4 mph. Like a lot of pioneers he paid the penalty of being the first – the production of what he needed to recreate his inventions didn’t exist, nor were there investors lining up to back what must have appeared a madcap idea. How he would have overcome over-heating of the batteries of old is a problem he seems not to have faced. Nevertheless, the credit lies with him, and not his US counterparts.

Davidson was a visionary. He could not interest the rail companies; the technology he employed was too expensive. After 1843, at home in Aberdeen, he settled down to family life and, for the next fifty years, the running of his business at Canal Road. His earlier invention of a method for large-scale production of yeast, one of the staples of his chemical business, and the manufacture of perfumes were so profitable it allowed him to indulge his interests of astronomy, collecting fine china, valuable pictures and violins.

Batteries of the kind he concocted were used in the development of underground railway locomotives and trams. British firm Elwell and Parker’s efforts in 1884 are cited as the first usable examples – modified horse-drawn carriages built in Wolverhampton. As with today’s EVs, developments occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, William Morrison introduced the country’s first EV in 1891, while three years later, a Pennsylvanian Electrobat produced taxi cabs that could travel at speeds of up to 20mph. Batteries on the wane, they drove to a special depot where they were swapped for new.

Scotland got there first. I hope Scotland takes the lead from Davidson, and as soon as self-governance is stabilised, we begin shifting in earnest to the new era of transportation. Meanwhile, we really should write and publish our own histories.


Car sales steady economy

Asked a few times by readers why I include a midweek state of the automotive nation articles, I answer car manufacturers are a bellwether of the economy. And wouldn’t it be good if Scotland made its own transportation vehicles? (That and it’s a subject I know and write about for US magazines.) To blow my own trumpet: A fall in transport costs and cheaper clothing brought to an end the recent rise in inflation that threatened to push the Bank of England to increase interest rates. Transport costs fell by 3.8% overall between April and May this year, led by falling air fares. Thought you’d be pleased to know. Again, twelfth month in a row, new car sales fell. Dealers will accept hard haggling for sales. So slow are they everywhere it’s worth asking for free extras if they won’t cut the price. In fact, ask for both.

Cycling for Yes

Last week I drew attention to Mavis Paterson a cycling ‘granny’ who has now completed her marathon pedalling from Land’s End to John o’Groats for Macmillan Cancer Support charity. This week a German woman started a marathon bike ride from her home in Bavaria to Scotland in support of Scottish independence. Yeah! Eva Gerber, a 54-year-old online media manager, left Wurzburg early Monday morning on a trip that will take her through Germany and the Netherlands, before she lands on British soil in Newcastle in a week’s time. I trust our dear government are ready to welcome her, and with more than “You’ll have had your tea?”

Tyre smart

Sitting in my car at traffic lights or the shopping mall has me spotting car oddities to while away the minutes. Any number of cars show up with deflated tyres or nil tread or both. I watch the driver swing into a parking bay wrestling with the steering as if a boat in a storm. Not inflating your tyres to the correct level causes the steering to become heavy. Gas mileage will also suffer. Low tread is an accident waiting to happen. Almost every garage has an air compressor, use 50p or less for five minutes. (They used to be free.) Tip: remove all the caps from the tyre first, pocket them, and then inflate the tyres.

Happy motoring.







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5 Responses to Car News: Scotland’s Electric Car

  1. Indy Chas says:

    Thanks for that. I have lived in Aberdeen area most of my life and wasn’t aware of Robert Davidson’s acheivements.

  2. finnmacollie says:

    Check out Madelvic Motor Carriage Co. Founded by Edinburgh astronomer William Peck in 1898 at Granton – the first purpose built car factory in the UK. It produced electric horseless carriages with a fifth front drive wheel. Electric vehicle production only lasted a couple of years before the factory turned to producing buses and lorries.
    The site later became United Wire Works and part of the original Madelvic factory still stands – soon to be demolished by Edinburgh Council.

  3. deryck23 says:

    Why are you, in Scotland, writing for the North American / Canada / States readership and passing off to us? Waiting at shopping … “mall”, consumption of “gas” (petrol or diesel) Fine if you were mainly writing for such market and passing onto us as well But why the adoption by a scotsman for Sottish readers using US English? What attraction does States hold for you that Scotland does not hold?

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    I use the occasional colloquial Americanism for a number of reasons: I have a few thousand North American readers. I dislike explaining (in parenthesis) what some English equivalent is they don’t understand. It also gives the prose a dynamic. I could use old Scots – do now and then – but that would take a lot of time and cut off international readers who support our independence movement.

    We need all the friends we can get because I believe we will, ultimately, be forced to take our case to the United Nations. This particular article discusses the US pioneering work in electric cars as well as Scotland. If you check my biography on the ‘About’ page you’ll see I worked in Los Angeles full-time many years, travelled the States, have car columns in a few magazines there.

    In any event, US language has long permeated our lives.

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    Finn – will do. Haven’t heard of that one.

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