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Seattle’s Illuminating History of Electric Vehicles

1900 horseless buggy with two passengers
Ralph Hopkins (right) with 1900 Woods Electric automobile, Seattle, ca. 1916 – Courtesy MOHAI (1983.10.10334)

On July 23, 1900 – no, that’s not a typo. Ralph S. Hopkins drove the first motor car through Seattle more than 122 years ago. Ralph’s Woods Electric auto boasted a powerful three-horsepower motor. The motor car was one of only 4,000 automobiles, gas or electric, in the United States at the time. It’s hard to believe that there are more than 55,800 electric vehicles currently registered in just King County today.  

Electric powered repair truck from 1971
Demonstrating how the Electruc is charged. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

Seattle’s history with electric vehicles didn’t stop there. In 1968, the Seattle City Light’s Research and Development team invented the Electruc. This workhorse looked similar to the bright yellow Seattle City Light repair trucks we see on the road today but in this case, it was all electric. Emblazoned across the side of the truck was the motto, “Your bright new future is all electric.”

By 1973 as some car manufacturers like AMC began exploring electric vehicle options, City Light’s team rose to the challenge to produce the Electro Park charging station. Remarkably, the prototype AMC Gremlin seen here in the photo with SCL Superintendent Gordon Vickery could be charged for just 25 cents per hour!

Man in suit charging a 1973 AMC Gremlin electric vehicle
Gordon Vickery charging up an electric 1973 AMC Gremlin Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

At the same time in 1973, an oil crisis increased tensions across the United States as a group of Middle Eastern oil producing countries declared an embargo in an attempt to influence political events in their region. The embargo caused widespread gas shortages and dramatically increased inflation. Long lines of cars often waited for hours to fill up at gas stations. In response, City Light Superintendent Gordon Vickery began promoting electric vehicles.

A prototype electric vehicle
RT1 Prototype Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

The last vehicle to be developed by City Light was the RT1 and was designed with a specific purpose in mind. Ahead of its time, City Light predicted a downtown core free of internal combustion vehicles to eliminate transportation pollution through the adoption of electric vehicles. The prototype RT1 could carry up to four passengers and reach a speed of 30 miles per hour, ideal for downtown transport. A single charge of the RT1’s eight six-volt batteries could last for 75 miles which in 1976 was quite impressive.

Today, electric vehicles have developed into modern day essentials with 32 different models available in the United States. These vary in price from around $27,000 to $179,000 and have an operating range from 120-516 miles per charge.  

Join Seattle City Light as we celebrate Drive Electric Week, Sept. 23-Oct. 2. Thinking about electrifying your drive? Seattle City Light has a wealth of information about making the transition to an electric vehicle from incentives to charging options and more. Learn more at: