And now for a word from our sponsors (in 1916) …
IN THE EARLY YEARS of the “horseless age,” electric trucks vied with gasoline models to replace the ubiquitous horse and wagon on American streets. This advertisement, which continues below, appeared in The Traffic World in 1916.
“The superiority of the Electric for city work is already appreciated by the more experienced users of motor vehicles. In numbers the Electric is just beginning to make itself felt, but in proving certain economic laws it has already made history. You can call “white” “black” for a while but when it comes to a show-down somebody loses.
“Experienced motor truck users have ceased to buy motor trucks on price alone. You can buy a pleasure car by-product for half what you pay for a good Electric, but it will last one-third as long and in most cases it will be out of commission so often that the necessary reserve equipment will eat up any possible saving. That’s not exaggerating — just talk to the older users.
“Honestly now, did you ever seriously set out to learn why an Electric truck is different from a gasoline truck for city work? Another question: How big a premium in operating costs are you willing to pay for your prejudice or indifference to efficient delivery in the city?
“Would you be interested in learning what G.V. users say about G.V. efficiency? Then write today for Bulletin 104.”
YOU MAY DETECT a note of desperation in the ad copy above. The General Vehicle Company, owned in part by General Electric since 1906, was facing stiff gasoline-powered competition by 1917. Improvements in engine design, including the invention of the electric starter, and Henry Ford’s mass production of comparatively cheap gasoline-powered vehicles eventually pulled the plug on the electric competition, though the industry’s battery charge lasted some time.
“New York is probably the greatest market for the electric road truck in the country,” Electrical World reported on Feb. 5, 1921, as the city prepared for an electric vehicle show. “More than five hundred enterprises are now using in the aggregate in the metropolitan district almost 5,000 electric trucks and delivery wagons, some of which have been in service 20 years and more. The largest installation is a fleet of 319 vehicles.”
It wasn’t the gasoline truck that killed GeVeCo, however, but the Great War. The company built Gnome aircraft engines at its Long Island City factory, but apparently couldn’t churn them out fast enough to support the war effort.
“The production of 5,000 large Gnome engines was entirely beyond the capacity of the General Vehicle Co.,” says the post-war U.S. Army Aircraft Production Facts published in 1919 (page 13). “Therefore negotiations were entered into with the General Motors Co. to take this contract.” The two companies agreed to combine resources, with General Vehicle “producing as many of the 110-horsepower Gnome engines as it could with its existing equipment.”
According to the U.S. Army publication, the GeVeCo plant in Long Island City was later leased by the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation from the U.S. government, which apparently nationalized the plant to speed production.
The end of the First World War, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, was also the end of GeVeCo, though some of its operations may have been assumed by the Walter Truck Company, which had produced gasoline-powered trucks since 1909. By 1921, Walter Truck had entered the electric truck market, producing trucks of 1-ton to 7-ton “heavy-duty sizes,” according to Electrical World.
After decades of neglect, electric vehicles — especially gasoline or diesel-electric hybrids — are enjoying something of a resurgence. Concern over carbon emissions, congestion and noise pollution is reopening markets to electrics, especially in New York, where companies such as Duane Reade and Frito-Lay are using battery-powered trucks built by Smith Electric Vehicles, and California, where UPS deployed 100 electric package vans earlier this year.
Plugging city-based fleets back into the power grid can lead to substantial fuel cost savings — as much as 80%, according to some operators — but electric trucks still cost much more than diesel-powered ones, and their owners often rely on government subsidies to purchase them. Electric trucks are also competing against surging interest in compressed and liquified natural gas vehicles fueled by an historic natural gas boom.
If their price becomes more competitive and fuel savings more apparent (and more quickly realized), electric trucks may yet make a comeback on city streets.