Gasoline range anxiety 100 years ago made electric-car charging seem easy

By John Voelcker, from Green Car Reports

1909 Ford Model T Touring

Electric cars have the great advantage that their batteries can be recharged anywhere there’s electricity. It may not be particularly fast, though modern plug-in vehicles get at least 60 miles overnight, and often double or triple that. But a century ago, drivers of gasoline cars had just as much range anxiety as electric-car drivers—especially if they wanted to take long road trips.

Today’s global network of gasoline and diesel filling stations has developed over 100 years, but it didn’t exist at the turn of the 20th century. The energy density of gasoline allowed trips of more than 100 miles, impossible in the mass-market battery-electric vehicles of the day. Traveling that far in a steam car was possible but required stocks of fuel to be stationed along the route.

So where did drivers of the newfangled gasoline vehicles get their fuel?

1914 Ford Model T at LeMay America’s Car Museum: red can for gasoline, blue for oil, white for water

At first, they had to have it shipped to stops along their route—often pharmacies, which already sold kerosene, alcohol, and other combustible liquids. There were no gas pumps of the sort a modern driver would recognize. Instead, the driver filled the car with a hand pump, usually at the curb, that pumped gasoline into the car’s gas tank from a metal storage tank at whichever roadside business was willing to take delivery of the highly flammable liquid.

Those hand pumps began to appear in 1907, just a few years after the turn of the century—at a time when the U.S. car market was split among electric cars, steam cars, and gasoline cars. Buyers viewed electric cars as the most refined (and the only ones suitable for women to drive), though they were limited by their range (less than 50 miles) and long recharging times.

Steam cars were smooth and powerful, but it took 30 to 45 minutes for the boiler to produce sufficient steam pressure to drive the car after the fuel was ignited. Gasoline cars were the crudest, loudest, and smelliest, but the long range provided by the energy density of liquid hydrocarbons worked in their favor.

1912 Cadillac Touring Edition

Then Charles Kettering’s electric self-starter, introduced by Cadillac in 1912, made gasoline cars practical for everyone. The battery-powered motors that turned over engines until they fired replaced hand cranks that could break the thumbs, wrists, or arms of the drivers using them if they kicked back. From 1900 through the 1920s, drivers simply carried multiple 5-gallon cans of gasoline on their cars—often strapped to the running boards—to ensure they could cover the necessary distances.

That fact comes from a paywalled article in The Wall Street Journal, cited in a post six years ago on Kate Kelly’s “America Comes Alive” website. Kelly notes, again from the Journal, that gasoline was also carried as a side business on some of the trucks that delivered home heating oil to residences. But the motorists of 100 years ago still had to plan their trips carefully; the growth of a nationwide network of regularly spaced fueling stations would take place from 1915 through 1930.

The first modern gas station opened in Pennsylvania in 1913, and what came to be called “service stations” had more than gas pumps: They sold oil, tires, starter batteries, and offered repairs and service to locals and travelers. By 1920, a post on the University of Houston’s “Engines of Our Ingenuity” site notes America had 15,000 gas stations, plus half that number of curbside pumps. A decade later, that number was more than 100,000—and the curbside pumps were all but extinct.
By 1970, the U.S. had more than 200,000 gas stations.

BMW ActiveE electric car in front of old gas pumps, Belvidere, NJ

There are now slightly more than 100,000, though stations have expanded from two or three pumps to a dozen or more pumps. Meanwhile, they no longer make money selling fuel.
Customer purchases of sugary sodas, salty snack foods, beer, cigarettes, and lottery tickets are today’s business model. That said, drivers no longer have to plan ahead to ship fuel to businesses along their routes.

Hat tip: Robert; LeMay photo by Brian Henderson