As the popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles grows, it is worth noting that this is not the first time in history when electric cars were de rigueur.
You see, electric cars were some of the earliest automobiles invented—dating back to the mid 19th century. For decades, electric cars rose in popularity, spiking in 1912, before being slowly squeezed out of popularity by the internal combustion engines; which were lower priced, had faster speeds, and longer range than the electric cars. But, at the turn of the 20th century, 38 percent of American automobiles were powered by electricity, and only 22 percent by gasoline.
My grandmother would often re-tell the story of the electric car she’d drive around Beverly Hills in the early 1920’s. She was working for humorist Will Rogers, and he’d let her drive the car to get around town. Rogers was one of the best-known celebrities of his time. He was a comedian, humorist, vaudeville performer, actor and columnist. He appeared in some 70 films, the majority of them silent ones, and wrote weekly columns for The New York Times that were syndicated in more than 500 U.S. newspapers. Electric cars in the 1920s were still popular—particularly among wealthy individuals. My grandmother would tell tales of Roger’s “fleet” of electric cars.
In 1920, Will Rogers moved to Beverly Hills to star in silent films. At the time, grandmother was graduating from L.A.’s University of Southern California (USC) and began working with Rogers on his writing staff.
She was given access to the fleet of electric cars, and took advantage of the quick transport around town. While my grandmother enjoyed the prestige of driving one of Will Roger’s electric cars around Beverly Hills (he was designated as the Honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills in 1926), she did not like the fact that she’d regularly run out of electricity halfway through her trips, and would often simply abandon the car in the middle of the road and walk back to Will Roger’s house on Beverly Drive. The Beverly Hills Police, who knew Roger’s car, and my grandmother’s habit, would retrieve the car for her and return it to the house.
Electric cars, then as now; higher priced, running at slower speeds, with a shorter driving range than gasoline powered cars. It seems little has changed.
Honorary Mayor Will Rogers visits the Beverly Hills Fire Department at the new City Hall in which housed the police department as well. (1926) Credit Early Beverly Hills, by Marc Wanamaker (Arcadia Publishing: 2005)