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Homepage. This page: A tiny battery-powered vehicle promotes the use of electricity in the 1930s' home.
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Electric vehicle.

The whirr of an electric motor, and the rattle of milk bottles, is something I remember well from my own childhood, as the local Co-op milkfloat delivered its cargo of milk, bread, and bottles of orange to the houses in our road. This was in the 1970s, but curious little delivery vans, milk floats and other similar vehicles - all powered by hefty batteries that required overnight re-charging - were a common sight on Britain's roads from the 1920s onwards. On this page I hope to feature a number of original images of these interesting battery-propelled machines.
Shown below in this original pre-war photograph - taken at a carnival somewhere - is a diminutive electric delivery vehicle, dressed up to promote the use of electricity in the British home. "Use Electricity Always" the slogan goes. Presumably this vehicle belonged to one of the electricity boards at the time. The fitment of spoked wheels, rather than the steel disc wheels seen on later examples, dates this battery-powered van to the 1930s. Just visible is the single, centrally-positioned, headlamp. A light commercial vehicle also dressed for the parade can be seen over to the right of shot. The latter's registration - APK 926 - suggest that this scene was captured in Surrey, sometime after August 1933.
(Please click the thumbnail to view a full-size version of the van photograph.)
1930s delivery van / promotional vehicle
A number of British manufacturers were producing electric-powered vans in the 1930s - 1950s period. These included Sunbeam, more often known for their cars, Electricars, Morrison-Electricar, Wales & Edwards, Metrovick, Wilson, and Brush. Quite which firm produced the van shown above I'm not yet sure.


Metropolitan-Vickers, or MetroVicks, was a Manchester-based producer of large- and small-scale electrical products and installations, and is remembered here for the many electric vehicles that they produced. The following is a factory-issued image of a small electric delivery vehicle chassis, minus body, printed on official MV-monogrammed paper. Such a chassis could be destined for a life as a milk float, refuse wagon, laundry van or delivery vehicle.
The example here is sat on a very smart set of wheels, finished in two-tone paint and finished off with smart chrome hubcaps. Whether this was a standard specification, or one for the cameras only, I'm not sure. Even the Goodyear tyres are quite flamboyant for such a vehicle, sporting thin whitewall pinstripes around their circumference. The large black box contains the battery pack, in this case - according to the plaque affixed to the side - a "Britannia Tubular Battery". I imagine that this dates to the 1930s, or possibly the late 1940s.
Metropolitan Vickers electric van chassis

The benefits of electric rather than petrol vans leading up to WW2.

Battery-powered vehicles were (are) ideally suited to local deliveries, so long as suitable charging facilities are available, and the route has been carefully planned accordingly - taking into account traffic conditions (likely hold-ups, diversions, road surfaces), and the terrain likely to be encountered (steep hills etc!). An article published in a railway magazine in 1941 considers the usage and suitability of electrically-powered vehicles during WW2, at a time of fuel rationing. The following are excerpts from the full article, my thanks to Alan for sending this over some time ago.
... When it became essential to augment the railway road haulage facilities it was decided that the new vehicles should be electric. Further considerations upheld this choice. While petrol was rationed, costly, and scarce, electric energy was solely home produced. The greater simplicity of operation permitted of easier training and made less demand for skill on the part of drivers; this factor arose from the absence of change-speed and reverse gears, from the whole control of starting and stopping - apart from the brakes - being effected by simple rotary manipulation of a controller, and from driving-motor movement being bound up with that of the vehicle, current being consumed only while travelling and for propulsion only. Electrics were thus much better suited than petrol to works services with frequent stops and short runs, ie of the door-to-door type in which competition of mechanical vehicles with horses is extremely difficult. The greater simplicity and smaller number of the mechanical parts compared with those of the petrol machine made maintenance easier and cheaper, and ensured the machines working with less loss of service for repair and adjustment. There was in those days, as there is today, a small gain in licensing charges.
On the other hand it had to be recognised that the battery definitely limited the radius of action, and it was necessary to set out accordingly the character and length of the routes to be worked. Battery-charging arrangements also presented some complications. The maximum speed of the electrics was low, though this was counterbalanced to some extent by quicker acceleration in the early stages of starting, by a more even maintenance of speed, and by much easier methods of control. Some reduction in the depreciation charges accrued from the chassis being simpler and cheaper, and less subject to racking stresses so that it could be allocated a longer life than in the case of the petrol vehicle; on the other hand this was partly counterbalanced by the cost of the battery and provision for its removal.
Hopefully more period shots of electric vans and milk floats will turn up over time. A float in the ownership of Britton's Milk features on this page of the site. Somewhere, I've photos of a 1950s or 1960s float that a friend and I rescued some years ago.
Find more early motoring photos on Page 16 of the vintage gallery.

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