Energy Perspectives

Driving the Recovered Past- Part II

In the face of global energy concerns, many automobile companies are producing electric and hybrid cars in order to become more energy efficient and sustainable. Many individuals believe that electric cars have a bright future in the automobile industry. Carrington White, fourth year History and Political Science student at the University of Ottawa, explains how electric vehicles have a past that has been easily forgotten.

"Sorry, no gas today”

 It might surprise you, but in 1973, these signs were a common sight at North American gas stations. The Yom Kippur War had captured global attention and the resulting oil embargo, imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in an effort to conserve peace, greatly affected the nations supporting the Israeli military effort. Before this embargo, Canadians were largely unaware of the complexities of energy sources and their importance in the global economy. 

Photographer unknown, “Line at the Gas Station”, June 15, 1979, via Google Images, Labelled for Reuse Attribution. 

Despite its large oil reserves, Canada relied mostly on imported Arab oil. This made Canada extremely vulnerable to changes in foreign markets. The price of oil quadrupled, resulting in crippling unemployment and putting the Canadian economy in danger of a recession. 

“A new Canadian industry”

 Following the Oil Crisis, there was resurgence in innovation of personal transportation. In Quebec, Luis Gyory created Marathon Electric Co. where he manufactured electric vehicles including golf carts, personal automobiles and industrial equipment. In 1975, the Marathon C-300 was released into the Canadian market. Its electric control system was unlike any other system on the electric market at the time, producing little energy waste and attaining significant speed with minimal cost to the battery.

The private and public sectors believed that creating a Canadian industry would help relieve the dependence on foreign oil imports so in 1975, Petro-Canada was established. Its mandate was to encourage Canadian exploration for and research of fuel and other energy sources, as well as to enhance federal control over the development and security of oil in Canada.

In Quebec, Marathon Electric believed that one solution to the geo-political risks of foreign oil and the country’s growing energy needs was “a wholly owned Canadian company, and that is the final development and growing use of electric powered vehicles”[1].  Luis Gyory felt that “With eight years of experience in the design and manufacture of electric vehicles… we believe that we have the basis for the establishment of a viable new Canadian industry”.


Oanababy, “Petro-Canada”, June 2, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 

The green giant rises again

In 1975, Canada and the United States developed government agencies, such as the North American Electric Vehicle Council, to assist in the development, testing, and certification of electric vehicles for public and private use. By 1980, the University of Wisconsin found that 330,000 electric automobiles had been sold in the United States alone. While these figures cannot be directly applied to Canada, it’s likely that Canada’s market for electric vehicles would have been proportionate. 


(CSTMC/1983/0440.001.aa.cs)

Marathon Electric Co shared in this growth of the electric automobile industry. They sold over six hundred electric vehicles by 1978. Interestingly, safety and convenience remained a concern for buyers for over half a century following the release of the C-300, despite the in-depth safety manual and claims that the C-300 was “safe, dependable and easy to operate”.[2] Unfamiliarity, safety concerns, and cost of the vehicle were likely the reasons for poor electric car sales. Nevertheless, the Marathon C-300 contributed greatly to fuel efficiency and alternative transportation in Canada

 The electric vehicle had returned to Canada and its success, or lack thereof, stemmed largely from economic concerns related to fossil fuels, fuel shortages, dependence on foreign imports and the country’s growing energy needs. The electric car wasn’t the right answer for Canada yet, but growing concerns about environmental responsibility would bring this innovation back into the spotlight.


(CSTMC/1983.0040.001.ab.cs)

[1]Marathon Electric Car Ltd., Marathon C-300 Service Manual, 1975, CSTM Trade Lit L34756, L39489.

[2] Ibid.

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