Why Most Motorists Preferred Gasoline Cars

Power, Speed, and Range

Haynes gasoline engine, 1914. Car engines became larger and more powerful from the 1910s to the 1960s. With highway improvements, speeds increased from 30-40 miles per hour to 60-70 miles per hour.

By 1905, the vast majority of motorists owned gasoline cars, which were faster and more powerful than electric cars and could travel much farther between refueling stops. Gasoline cars could go places far from cities because they did not depend on electric power generating stations. For most motorists, the need to move about quickly and flexibly with as few limitations as possible became a high priority. On hard level roads, a Ford Model T could travel at speeds up to 45 miles per hour compared with 10 or 15 miles per hour in an electric car. Lighter than an electric car, a gasoline car with sufficient power easily overcame hills and dirt roads. A tank of gasoline lasted 150 to 175 miles, compared with 30 to 40 miles per charge in an electric car.

The spread of cars in the early twentieth century stimulated travel and tourism. Motorists drove to places traditionally reached by train and penetrated areas far from railroad tracks.

Many autocampers cooked food over a hot gasoline car engine, as shown on the July 1924 cover of Motor Camper and Tourist magazine. Commercially available autocamping accessories made this practice possible.

Autocamping with gasoline cars became a very popular activity in the late 1910s and 1920s. Before motels existed, families slept in cots and tents beside the road or in commercial camps. Without the limitations of passenger trains and railroad timetables, families could tour at their own pace. By avoiding the formalities, expenses, and commercial atmosphere of hotels, motoring families enjoyed a more intimate experience with nature.

Pages from a photo scrapbook depicting a family autocamping trip in North Carolina, 1928.

At rest in the evening, the automobile itself became the center of family life; often a cot straddled its seat backs, and cooking took place on a running board. Autocampers recreated their home life in roadside settings without the pressures and distractions of their real homes. They hoped that the isolation and simplicity of autocamping would erase the cares, pressures, and divisiveness that modern living had brought to the home. Autocamping symbolized the importance of personal mobility to Americans, and the extended range and easy refueling of gasoline vehicles made this new activity possible. [1]

In the 1910s and 1920s, many motorists tried autocamping while on vacation. William and Nora Andrews of Rock Falls, Wisconsin used this folding table in 1926 during a vacation trip to Yellowstone National Park in their Ford Model T.

In the 1920s, autocampers turned a car and tent into a home beside the road. This setting, comprising a 1918 Oldsmobile touring car, folding auto bed, folding tent, portable cook stove, running board food cabinet, and folding table, was part of the exhibition “At Home on the Road: Autocamping, Motels, and the Rediscovery of America” at the National Museum of American History from 1985 to 1987.

Gasoline: Portable Energy

Gilbert & Barker Gasoline Pump, 1911

View object record

A 1911 Gilbert & Barker Model T-6, one of the first pumps that counted gallons of gasoline. Mechanical gauges made gasoline retail sales more efficient, accurate, and practical.

This gasoline tank dipstick has gallon marks for a Ford Model T square tank and oval tank.

A fuel gauge, available on some cars, made refueling more accurate and reliable on some cars. This gauge (left) is on the dashboard of a 1934 Ford roadster.

Gasoline Price Sign

In the minds of most Americans, gasoline symbolized a successful combination of portable energy and personal mobility. Gasoline — not the electric car battery — was bottled lightning because it packed the maximum amount of stored energy available in a small container. General stores and hardware stores originally sold gasoline in metal cans, but by the 1910s, stores and filling stations dispensed it in a continuous flow from underground tanks. A fill-up took minutes instead of hours needed to charge an electric car battery.

Enter the Self-starter

Compressed air from this ca. 1910 Christensen starter forced the pistons to move inside a gasoline engine.

Until 1912 a hand crank started the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Cranking a gasoline engine by hand was difficult and dangerous; it required strength, and engine backfire could break the motorist’s arm. Cranking in the rain was another unpleasant task. Once underway, a stalled engine meant getting out of the car in traffic and cranking again. Compressed air or explosive acetylene gas started the engines on some makes of cars by the early 1910s, eliminating the need for a hand crank.

The Delco electric starter, introduced in 1911, revolutionized driving by eliminating the hand crank on gasoline automobiles. It worked more effectively than other types of starters on the market.

Beginning in 1912, gasoline car manufacturers dealt a serious blow to electric car sales by borrowing one of the electric car’s most convenient features: easy, switch-on electric starting. Instead of turning a crank to rotate the crankshaft and initiate the first two strokes of the four-cycle engine, the starter motor would pull electricity from the car battery, engage the flywheel and rotate the crankshaft until engine ignition occurred.

Aftermarket electric starter installed on a 1913 Ford Model T

Most Ford Model T cars came with a starting crank operated by hand. In 1917, Harvey W. Locke, an inventor of camera parts in Rochester, New York, replaced the hand crank on his 1913 Model T with a commercially made, add-on electric starter.

The 1912 Cadillac introduced a practical electric starter invented by Charles Kettering at Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco). By 1915, all cars except the low-priced Ford Model T came with an electric starter. Motorists who could afford a medium- to high-priced car enjoyed the best of both energy worlds: the power and range of a gasoline car, and the ease of starting it with electricity. This welcome convenience boosted sales of gasoline cars and helped to bring about the demise of the electric car. Even Ford Model T enclosed sedans and coupes came with an electric starter by 1919. Other Model T owners purchased aftermarket electric starters and installed them on open touring cars and runabouts (the least expensive Ford cars), replacing the hand crank.

[1] Warren James Belasco, Americans on the Road: from Autocamp to Motel, 1910-1945 (1979).