General Motors filed for Chapter 11 today, which wasn’t a big surprise. According to GM's Reinvention website, their decision to declare bankruptcy is not “the end of the American car” but “the rebirth of the American car,” which led me to wonder: What was the first American car?
The Library of Congress lists several “Automobile Firsts” on its Everyday Mysteries website. Americans, it seems, were somewhat late getting into the internal combustion engine game, coming in after Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in the late 1800’s. But even before the Germans came up with their elegant internal combustion engine, a Scotsman by the name of Robert Anderson invented the “electric carriage” in the 1830’s.
By the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles outsold all other types of vehicles in the United States. Then crude oil was discovered in Texas, which drastically reduced the price of gas in this country; and Henry Ford came up with an assembly line process that could produce an internal combustion vehicle for less than half the price of an electric car.
Now, we seem to have come full-circle. GM is putting a lot of emphasis on paring down the number of its lines and focusing on core products such as the Chevy Volt, an electric car that is due to launch in 2010. According to the GM-Volt website, “The near death of the auto industry is bringing with it the slow death of the combustion engine.” Out of the ashes, apparently, will come the E-REV or Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, able to travel up to 40 miles using a lithium ion battery and then to use a gas-powered engine that drives a generator to provide electric power beyond that 40 mile range.
Blamed by some for being complicit in killing the electric car in the late 1990’s, GM is apparently making a conscious decision to reinvent itself and its product line. “This is not about going out of business,” says the voiceover on GM Reinvention, “this is about getting down to business.”
Ultimately, though, the real test for an automobile manufacturer is whether or not anybody will buy their vehicles. So my question is: Would you buy an electric car?