Ford Motor Co. Invests $4.5B in EVs, a Century After Henry Ford Gave Up On Electric Cars

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
ford motor co invests 4 5b in evs a century after henry ford gave up on electric

The first Ford electric car, 1914

Ford Motor Company recently announced that it will be investing more than $4.5 billion over the next five years into its electric vehicle program and that it will have 13 electric vehicles on sale by 2020. The announcement follows the Ford company’s original investment in EV technology and the first Ford electric cars by 102 years.

Hopefully, the current spending will yield more fruitful results than did Henry Ford’s original look into EVs more than a century ago.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison became good friends later in life, but before Ford became famous as an automaker, he was an employee of Edison’s. When Ford made his first automobile, the Quadricycle, in 1896, he was then employed as chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company. That same year Ford attended a company banquet in New York City honoring Edison, where it was documented that the two men discussed Ford’s experiments with gasoline powered transportation, and how that fuel measured up against cars powered by electricity or steam. At the time, Edison was skeptical that cars could be electric.

Pounding on the table for emphasis, Edison exclaimed:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained — carries its own power plant — no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.

1899 Edison experimental runabout.

By 1899, though, Edison was starting to tinker with electric cars, using them to test his Menlo Park lab’s latest invention, a major innovation in battery chemistry. He had an experimental electric-powered, front-wheel drive, rear-steering three-wheeler made to test his new battery’s suitability for powering a vehicle (dating on that vehicle varies between 1895 and 1899 — the Henry Ford Museum, which has owned it since Thomas Edison gave it to Henry Ford upon the opening of the Edison Institute in 1929 says 1898-1899).

In front of the steering tiller is a rheostat used to control the speed.

Edison’s invention is today known generally as a nickel-iron storage battery, though it’s still sometimes called an “Edison battery.” We’ve looked at it before. It had a cathode made of nickel oxide and hydroxide and an anode made of iron, with potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte. They were far more durable than lead-acid batteries, capable of handling repeated charge/discharge cycles without a decline in performance. Tom Edison claimed they would last 100 years and modern tests have validated that claim.

The Edison Storage Battery Company was started and electric vehicle companies like Baker and Detroit Electric began offering the Edison batteries as an option. To promote them Edison sponsored endurance runs with cars powered by his nickel-iron cells.

Edison also used electric cars personally. There’s a 1907 stereo photograph of Edison at the tiller of his Waverly electric at speed. Edison was also photographed with Baker and Detroit Electric battery powered automobiles, with the hood up to expose his cells.

Stereo photograph of Edison driving a Waverley Electric. Photo from the Keystone-Mast collection courtesy of the Univesity of California Riverside.

In 1896, Edison told Henry Ford that gasoline was “the thing.” Now that he had batteries to sell to EV makers, by 1903 Edison was less enthusiastic about combustion powered cars.

Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.

Edison nickel-iron battery at the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Perhaps based on Edison’s earlier negative comments about storage batteries, or perhaps due to the possibly apocryphal story of a battery overturning in a pre-production Model T, Henry decided to sell the T without a battery. Instead he had a flywheel magneto system developed for the Tin Lizzie, which went on sale in 1908.

By early 1914 Ford — possibly due to his growing friendship with Edison — had changed his mind. The Ford Motor Company’s public relations machinery was undoubtedly behind the reports that started appearing in trade and business publications like the Wall Street Journal that Ford was working on an inexpensive electric car. Henry confirmed that to the New York Times in January 1914.

Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans.

The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

As best we can determine today, Henry was stretching the truth when he used the plural “cars,” since his second EV wouldn’t be built until after that statement appeared. We know with certainty that at least one experimental Ford car powered by electricity was made in 1913. That’s because there’s a dated photograph of it taken in front of the Ford Highland Park factory.

Little more than a frame with a seat, Ford’s first electric car had its batteries under that seat and the traction motor mounted inline just in front of the rear axle. The man driving the car was Fred Allison, an electrical engineer who designed that motor. The overall design and more specifically the vehicle’s electrical system were the responsibility of Alexander Churchward, who was also an executive at Gray & Davis, which manufactured headlamps. Samuel Wilson, who worked on Charles Kettering’s electric self starter while at Cadillac, was responsible with the mechanical side of things.

We know that a second prototype was built in 1914, as there is another photograph of Fred Allison, this time at the wheel (not a tiller) of a battery-powered car based on Model T components. The frame, suspension, front axle, and steering wheel were all were sourced from the Model T parts shelf. One bank of Edison batteries sat under the seat and another up front where the engine would have been in a conventional Model T. The electric traction motor was located approximately where the transmission of a conventional car would have been. Eugene Farkas, who had a indispensable role in the development of the Model T, was responsible for the design of the chassis and for the worm-drive rear end, which would go on to be used in other Ford products like the TT truck.

In May 1914, Edison joined the promotional bandwagon in an interview with the Automotive Topics publication, but he also explained that an electric Edison-Ford would not be on sale immediately.

He called attention to the fact that a new automobile, especially one embodying such radical features as a $500 or $750 electric pleasure car naturally must have, cannot be designed and constructed in a few weeks.

“Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long.

“I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

Enter Ernest Gustav Liebold, often described as Ford’s personal secretary. Liebold was a bookkeeper and banker whom Henry first hired to evaluate the assets of a Dearborn bank he eventually bought. In time Liebold became perhaps Ford’s closest associate. In 1913, he started handling all of Henry and Clara Ford’s personal business accounts and by 1918 he had power of attorney for both Fords, handling most of their financial affairs apart from the car company. When plans to build a new hospital in Detroit stalled, Ford put him in charge of building what became the Henry Ford Hospital. Liebold would later help Henry Ford set up his pet “Ford Village Industries” network of tiny factories that meant to employ farmers out of season.

Liebold also did less than high minded things for Henry Ford. Liebold is documented as being a virulent Jew hater, and he was responsible for setting up the Dearborn Independent newspaper, for Henry Ford to have a megaphone for his own fevered fantasies about Jewish bankers controlling the world.

(As an aside, it’s worthwhile to point out that the Michigan Public Service Commission granted Henry Ford, the individual, the power of eminent domain to seize land adjacent to dam sites for his Village Industries program. It’s almost funny to think that a man to whom a state gave one of its monopolies, the power to seize private property, a man who had real power in this world, was pathologically phobic of a fictional cabal of string pulling Hebrews.)

Simply put, Liebold was Henry Ford’s go-to guy when he wanted something done. In 1914, Henry wanted his latest pet project, an Edison powered electric Ford car, publicized and Liebold got to work. Word started to spread. Ford was rumored to have bought a site down Woodward Avenue from the Highland Park plant just to built the Edison-Ford. Edsel Ford was rumored to be in charge of the project. The Edison-Ford would go on sale in 1915 (later rumors said 1916). It would cost between $500 and $750 (for comparison, a 1915 Model T Runabout was $390 and a touring car was $440), and it would have a range of between 50 and 100 miles on a single charge. The historical record does not seem to mention range anxiety.

Despite the publicity and rumors, little was actually known at the time about Ford’s EVs. Though the two photos above have been found in The Henry Ford archives, they weren’t made public in their day and eventually the publicity subsided. Modern day conspiracy theorists believe that Ford and Edison were pressured by oil interests to kill the project, pointing to what they say was a suspicious fire that destroyed nearly all of the Menlo Park facility. However, the only two buildings not ravaged by the fire were the experimental lab and the storage battery building. Besides, all of the work on the Edison-Ford electrics was done in Dearborn.

Henry Ford wasn’t just an employee and friend of Edison’s. The automaker idolized the wizard of electricity. Before it was called the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, it was called The Edison Institute. My mother, who is 91, still has the commemorative coin she got from a time Edison visited the Village.

Due to that devotion and conviction that Edison had to be correct, Henry Ford demanded that the team working on a Ford electric car use Edison’s nickel-iron batteries to power it. The team’s research, however, determined that those cells had very high internal resistance and would not be practical for powering a car in many situations (if any of our engineer readers could elaborate on that, I’d appreciate your insight in the comments below).

Had that work been done in Menlo Park, perhaps they would have found a solution or perhaps nickel-iron is inherently unsuitable for cars. They certainly haven’t been suggested to replace lithium-ion cells any time lately. In any case, Ford’s employees did something not likely to have been done in Menlo Park. For testing and demonstration purposes they substituted conventional lead-acid batteries without telling Henry, but as with Edsel Ford’s secret revision of the Model T, Henry found out and had a temper tantrum. Though he had invested $1.5 million in the effort, buying almost 100,000 batteries from the Edison Storage Battery Company (the sources do not indicate if Edison gave Henry Ford a break on the pricing), after his temper cooled down, Henry Ford lost interest in the project and never again tried to make an electric car, though he did buy Clara Ford her own Detroit Electric. She never liked the smell and noise of gasoline powered cars.

That $1.5 million was the equivalent of a bit more than $35 million in 2015 dollars. One wonders what Henry would say about his company spending more than a hundred times that amount to make electric cars today.

Photos of the Edison 1899 electric runabout by the author.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 15 comments
  • Pragmatist Pragmatist on Dec 29, 2015

    It certainly is worth pursuing, but there is no guarantee that batteries will ever, despite improvement, approach chemical energy storage. Particularly for applications like trucks and aircraft. There are many things that simply never worked out (flying cars?). It's still worth pursuing, though.

  • Kmars2009 Kmars2009 on Dec 31, 2015

    I don't know if any of you have been watching various news sources, but...there is a NEW battery technology called Lithium Oxygen batteries....they can hold a charge much longer than Lirhium Ion, and can allow a vehicle equipped with one, to go 400 plus miles on one charge. Also, the charging time is one third of that time of Lithium Ion. They say 10 years or less for implementation. The future is here...or at least right around the corner. Say goodbye ti ICE soon.

  • Jdt65724922 How can a Chrysler E-Class ride better than a Chrysler Fifth Avenue?
  • Lorenzo This series is epic, but I now fear you'll never get to the gigantic Falcon/Dart/Nova comparison.
  • Chris P Bacon Ford and GM have decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Odds are Chrysler/Cerberus/FCA/Stellantis is next to join in. If any of the companies like Electrify America had been even close to Tesla in reliability, we wouldn't be here.
  • Inside Looking Out China will decide which EV charging protocol will become world wide standard.
  • Chris P Bacon I see no reference to Sweden or South Carolina. I hate to assume, but is this thing built in China? I can't help but wonder if EVs would be more affordable to the masses if they weren't all stuffed full of horsepower most drivers will never use. How much could the price be reduced if it had, say, 200hp. Combined with the instant torque of an EV, that really is plenty of power for the daily commuter, which is what this vehicle really is.