Electric cars have been touted as the automobiles of the future. They have also been the automobiles of the past.
In 1896, in fact, an electric car made by the Riker Electric Motor Company won the first car race ever held in the U.S. It completed five laps around a one-mile track in Narragansett, R.I., ahead of six other cars competing, five of which had internal combustion engines under the hood.
Batteries in early electric cars were both heavy and expensive -– sound familiar? -– paving the way for the growth of their gas-guzzling counterparts. A century later, the U.S. has arrived at another crossroads where big changes could come in how cars are powered. Or not.
In that spirit, we retraced the history of the electric car with the help of the LeMay: America’s Car Museum, which displays several early renditions in a green-car exhibit at its Tacoma, Wash., home.
Click through, and you’ll see examples of electric cars past and present:
1911 Baker Electric
Baker Electric was one of the first prominent electric car makers, prodicing cars from its inception in 1899 until a merger with another company in 1914. One of its models was part of the first presidential automotive fleet.
This 1911 Baker contained 12 six-volt batteries that provide 72 volts DC, with six in the front compartment and six in the rear. Early electric cars were sometimes considered women’s cars, because they did not require cranking, according to curators at the LeMay museum.
Girly or not, they are durable cars. The one pictured here still runs.
1912 Standard Electric
Would you believe this 1912 Standard Electric car has a maximum range of 125 miles, which puts it ahead of many of modern EVs produced more than a century later?
The one pictured above, displayed at the LeMay, originally sold for $1,885. It is powered by 14 six-volt batteries and has a top speed of 35 miles per hour. It still runs today. In 1998, it was the only electric vehicle to complete the 130-mile New London to New Brighton Auto Run.
General Motors EV1
A precursor to the Chevy Volt, General Motors produced the EV1 from 1996 to 1999 and made about 1,100 of these vehicles. In its first iteration, the vehicle contained a lead-acid battery and had an official range of 70 miles. In a second-generation car, GM switched to a nickel-metal hydride battery.
The very first EV1 off the production line, above, now sits at the LeMay museum.
Its birth was accelerated by the California Air Resources Board’s mandate that certain percentages of zero-emissions vehicles be produced. In late 2003, GM said it could not make the car profitable, and discontinued its EV program. The company decided to take back all of the EV1s it had leased out to people, and send them through a crusher, sparking activists to make the documentary "Who Killed The Electric Car?"
Less than a decade later, the accumulated knowledge was used as the premise for the Chevy Volt, GM’s plug-in hybrid that remains on the market today.
2013 Nissan Leaf
Sticker price: $28,800 to $34,840
Invoice: $26,986 to $32,635
MPGe: 129 mpg city/102 mpg highway
The Nissan Leaf is a compact hatchback that is an all-electric vehicle with a lithium-iron battery that travels about 100 miles per charge.
A recent $5,000 price cut has helped spur sales. In the first seven months of this year, Nissan sold 11,703 of the vehicles, a 230 percent increase over the same seven-month period in 2012.
It’s a comfortable car that delivers a ton of torque, making it as easy to drive as its gas-guzzling competitors on the road.
2013 Ford Focus Electric
Sticker price: $35,200
MPGe: 110 mpg city/99 mpg highway
The Focus Electric is a hatchback that is Ford’s first fully electric offering. It comes with an all-electric powertrain powered by a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery. It seats five. It earned a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the highest-possible ranking.
Last month, Ford cut $4,000 from the price of the car, joining competitors like Nissan and GM in slashing prices on electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Some buyers qualify for a $7,500 credit on federal income taxes and some save more based on particular state incentives.
2013 Tesla Model S
Sticker price: $69,900 to $94,900
MPGe: 94 mpg city/97 mpg highway
The Tesla Model S is the first premium-level electric car. And it’s the first electric car to look like something that holds appeal beyond its eco-friendly blueprint. It’s actually a car you’ll have tremendous fun driving. But don’t just take our word for it. Motor Trend proclaimed the Model S nothing short of the best car its editors have ever driven.
Want another reason to consider the Model S? It received perfect scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its crash testing. It achieved five stars in every category.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.