Electric Vehicles: Technology recharged

Electric vehicles (EVs) are gradually becoming visible on Queensland roads. The pioneer of this cutting-edge electric technology was a plain 1980s parcels van.

The converted Bedford van carried the digital clock showing Robert de Castella’s time in the 1982 Commonwealth Games marathon in Brisbane. For a short time the van was perhaps the most watched vehicle in the world. The Lucas Bedford van was virtually silent and produced no exhaust fumes, making it perfect for use in sporting competitions like the marathon and 30 km walk. It has a range of 100 km and a top speed of 80 kph.

Queensland Museum’s Lucas Bedford electric van, used in the 1982 Commonwealth games.

The Lucas Bedford was brought to Queensland from England by the electricity supply company (SEQEB). Electric vans were used in British cities right through the 20th century. They were perfect for use as milk vans, delivering silently in the middle of the night.

1953 milk van
Caption: 1953 English electric delivery van.

The Lucas Bedford van was far from the first electric vehicle on Australian roads. Electric cars were displayed at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1901. The Woods and Winton electric cars imported from the United States scooped a host of prize medals including cleanest and ‘most noiseless’ motor vehicles, most stylish private vehicles, as well as recognition of their suitability for ‘public service’ and postal purposes.

The potential of electric motor vehicles as cabs and buses were pioneered by the London Electric Cab Company in 1896. The Australasian Coachbuilder and Saddler Magazine published plans for the bodywork of electric cars in 1900, in anticipation that local coachbuilders would soon be putting electric cars on Australian roads.


Electric cars seemed practical and even exciting, setting a series of land speed records. A speed of 105.88 kph was achieved in 1899 by Belgian inventor M. Camille Jenatzy in his cigar shaped electric car.

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An American Baker electric car achieved 100 mile per hour (160kph) in a 1903 time trial, prior to slamming into the crowd, killing two people and injuring several more. The Baker company understandably give up on speed records but became a leader in electric cars, vans and trucks, and at least a few came to Australia. Other manufacturers like Studebaker also made electric vehicles. Tens of thousands were on American roads by the First World War.

Baker lorry Geelong 1912 Mus Vic
A Baker electric lorry belonging to the Melbourne Electricity Supply Company, 1912. (Image courtesy Museums Victoria)

However the weight of the batteries, and a range of only 80km per charge were limitations that even challenged the likes of Thomas Edison. He tried for 15 years, with the support of friend Henry Ford, to develop batteries for long range and lightweight electric cars, without much success.

Internal combustion vehicles eclipsed electric vehicles by the 1920s, but a century later EVs of comparable weight and range to petrol cars are coming on to the market. There is a new dawn for electric vehicles.

Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum



Daily Telegraph, Sydney 6 April 1901.

Telegraph, Brisbane 31 Dec 1896.

Australasian Coachbuilder and Saddler Magazine, 15 Jan 1900. P192.

Ballarat Star, 2 Dec 1899.

The World’s News, Sydney 2 Aug 1902.

Gympie Times 7 Oct 1902; Richmond River Express 12 Dec 1911; The Mail, Adelaide 21 Mar 1914. )

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