Electric cars like Chevy's new Volt are too expensive today, but they won't be for long, if history is a guide

Historians in the News

General Motors has announced that the bottom-end version of the Chevy Volt, its new electric car, will cost $41,000. Even after a generous federal rebate, it's still pricey....

When the automobile age dawned at the turn of the 20th century, cars were toys, luxury products and status symbols for the rich to race and tool around in. They weren't affordable for the overwhelming majority of Americans. In 1903, most car companies were "turning out products with steep prices of $3,000 or even $4,000," writes Douglas Brinkley in Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress. In 1903, about 12,000 cars were sold in the United States The following year, Henry Ford introduced his Model B "at a startling $2,000." Now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator only goes back to 1913. But $3,000 in 1913 is worth about $66,114 today. This BLS report suggests that average family income in 1901 was about $750. Any way you slice it, cars were very expensive. A luxury car cost about four times what a family earned in a year. What kind of future was there for the car as a democratic object?
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