The Future’s Electric, But What About the Past?

After years of domination, it seems that the writing is on the wall for the internal combustion engine in vehicles. The UK Government recently declared that they will ban petrol and diesel engines in 2040. So what will we be driving in the future? According to the experts the future is electric. But what can history tell us about other alternatives?

Modern Electric Ca
A modern electric car at a charge point on Dock Street, Dundee, 12th December 2017


A perusal of the history books reveals that electric cars are nothing new. We’ve been down this road before in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In fact the first electric car was invented by Scotsman Robert Anderson in the 1830s (and the first electric locomotive was invented in 1837 by another Scottish Robert – Robert Davidson). With this in mind I was curious to find out if the streets of Edwardian Dundee hummed to the sound of electric cars. To find my answer I would have to delve into the Vehicle Registration records held here in the Archives (Ref: GD/VR).

The series records all cars registered in the City of Dundee between 1904 and 1981. During that period Dundee cars had the registration numbers starting with TS. The first volume covers TS1 to TS1201 and the years 1904 to 1920. Browsing through the records reveals names of manufacturers that have long since expired. But in amongst all the fancy car names of the past, there are a few names we still recognise today. It seems that our love affair with foreign cars is not a modern phenomenon; back then it seems that the most popular cars to have were French. The number plate TS1 originally graced a French 8 HP De Dion Bouton car from January 1904 to April 1922.

De Dion Bouton 8HP
The first TS1 could have looked similar to this car.

But what about electric cars? Sadly there were none registered in Dundee back then, but that doesn’t mean that petrol engines had a clean sweep in the register. Lurking amongst the petrol cars were cars powered by steam. Three Dundee businessmen chose steam powered cars as their preferred mode of transport.

Gilroy's Cars
Alexander Gilroy registers his steam cars

Alexander Bruce Gilroy seems to have enjoyed the experience of owning a steam car the most. Between June 1906 and July 1915, he owned 3 White steam cars. James Ferguson, like Alexander Gilroy, also chose to drive an American made steam car. His preferred choice was a 6 HP Locomobile which he owned from May 1907 to July 1909. The third person to own a steam car in Dundee was Frank Sandeman. For Frank, the gallic flair of a 6 HP Gardner Serpollett appears to have caught his eye. He registered his Gardner Serpolett in January 1906.

White steam car
A 1907 White Model G Steam Touring Car in the Henry Ford Museum (

Environmental concerns were not an issue to the Edwardian motorist. Attitudes have changed and we now see things differently. Vehicle manufacturers today are busy developing electric, hybrid and alternately-fuelled vehicles for motorists. Electric and hybrid vehicles are now a common sight on our roads. Could it be that one day we will see a new generation of steam-powered vehicles on the streets of Dundee?

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