With electric power now being touted by some as the future of motoring, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this mode of transport has already had a golden age – the 1890s and early 1900s. Indeed in 1900, when Western Australians were starting to see the odd car out and about, petrol power was running third fiddle to electricity and steam. 

Electric motoring was quieter, smoother, less smelly, simpler to start and drive, and was seen as the most likely candidate to succeed. Yet, by 1910, the global production of electric and steam cars had peaked and, by the end of the 1920s, all but dried up. Petrol dominance had been driven by the US from about 1905, with the key advantages being the fuel’s cheapness and convenience. Massive US domestic oil discoveries had also led to much cheaper prices for petrol, an apparent super-fuel that allowed cars to go fast and to be able to travel long distances on a single tank.

Petrol cars also had much lower sticker prices than electric ones, largely due to Henry Ford focusing his mass-production techniques on the combustion engine.

Petrol vs electric

By the start of the First World War, the petrol dominant die seemed to have been cast worldwide, including in Western Australia, where about 1300 of the state’s 1700 cars were US imports and, in the main, petrol-driven. But with the advent of war, Western Australian motorists faced petrol rationing and price hikes, which led to a lot of talk about a  return to electric cars and trucks.

In December 1917, the Western Mail reported on British motoring trends: “One of the latest developments in the motor field brought about by the present war is the great development in the use of electric vehicles for delivery service in ci ty areas.

“This increased interest in electrics has been stimulated by the shortage and high price of petrol, and also by the fact that electric delivery vehicles can be handled much better by girls and boys.”

At about the same time, the RAC’s WA Motorist magazine also expressed concerns about the availability of fossil fuels, putting forward the merits of steam-powered trucks. A couple of Perth vehicle dealers had also been marketing electric cars as being easier to handle for women.

In reality, the composition of WA’s car, bus and truck fleet during the First World War changed little during wartime. A few extra electric trucks and cars were imported but many people simply mothballed their car or truck for a couple of years and used a horse-and-cart instead.

Once the war ended and petrol supplies returned to normal, motorists returned to their vehicles with more enthusiasm than ever before.