A brief look at electric vehicles from the dawn of the automobile age


If it seems that electric cars are the future of the automobile, the same was true more than a century ago. With automakers planning to meet government laws ending new internal combustion engine production by 2035, this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance—which takes place May 20-23 in Florida—is a reminder that electric cars are far from a new idea.

“The electric carriage has made a good record for speed, and the great ease of control and the absence of noise and odor will commend it to those who are anxious to purchase horseless carriages,” wrote Scientific American in 1895. For a while, it was true.

These are the cutting-edge cars that held so much promise, a promise only now reaching fruition.

1895 Morris and Salom Electrobat IV

With a name like Electrobat, you’d expect people to remember it. Chemist Pedro Salom and engineer Henry Morris of Philadelphia received the first US patent for an electric car, and this was the result. Boasting a steel tube frame and weighing 800 lbs (363 kg), it features front-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering, three forward gears, and reverse. Its 350 lb (159 kg) battery and two 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) motors could go 15 mph for 25 miles (24 km/h for 40 km). Philadelphia lawyer Isaac Rice eventually assumed control of the company, changing its name to the Electric Vehicle Company, or EVC, and amassed more than 500 battery patents before selling it to New York City financier William Whitney.

1901 Waverley Electric

Formed from the merger of the American Electric Car Company with Colonel Albert Pope’s Indiana Bicycle Company in 1898, the Waverly Electric was part of Pope’s plan to corner the auto market as he had the bicycle market.  The Waverly is a simple two-passenger car with tiller steering, 36-inch wheels with pneumatic tires, dual coach lamps and a 2.5 hp (1.8 kW) motor that runs 40 miles (64 km) on a charge. One early admirer was Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace, who bought one in 1902.

1905 Columbia XXXV Open Drive Brougham

Another Albert Pope company, Pope Manufacturing, began building Columbia electric cars in 1899 in alliance with William Whitney’s EVC, manufacturing electric taxicabs for EVC, as well as passenger cars. The Columbia attained 18 mph (29 km/h) thanks to its two motors, five-speed transmission, and 88-volt battery. Once Pope’s empire crumbled, Columbia was absorbed by the United States Motor Company, a failed attempt at emulating General Motors.

1909 Baker Victoria Roadster

Established by Walter Baker in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1899, the Baker Electric was marketed as “The Aristocrats of Motordom.” They claimed their cars could run 244.25 miles (393 km) on a single charge due to its Edison nickel-iron batteries, although impartial observers were never able to verify this. Nevertheless, Bakers proved popular. President Taft bought one for the first White House automotive fleet. But the internal combustion engine proved too popular, and by 1915, Baker was gone, absorbed by Rauch and Lang, which would also fade.

1909 Studebaker Electric 13a

Studebaker was the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer in the 19th century, building the Conestoga wagons that enabled Western migration. Once automobiles arrived, the company reluctantly fielded electric vehicles. While company patriarch John M. Studebaker preferred them, most motorists did not. Studebaker dropped electrics from its lineup for 1913 after building approximately 1,800.

1910 Waverley Four Passenger Coupe

Having debuted in 1900 as the Waverly, the car was renamed the Pope-Waverly from 1904 to 1908 until Pope’s empire collapsed. Local Indianapolis businessmen stepped in to buy the company, and the car became the Waverly once again. The company’s slogan, “The Silent Waverly,” was apt; the automaker silently slipped away by 1917.

1912 Woods Model 1316 Extension Brougham

Organized in 1899 in Chicago to compete against William Whitney’s EVC, the Woods were expensive for their time, about $3,000, at a time when $690 bought a Ford Model T. [Approximately $82,600 in 2021 dollars—Ed.] It has a top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h), and can run up to 100 miles on a charge. Woods survived until 1918, ultimately offering gas-electric hybrids, which they dubbed the Dual Power.

1921 Milburn Light Electric

Having built wagons since 1848, this Toledo, Ohio-based company built its first electric cars in 1914. With a range of up to 75 miles (121 km), the batteries came with rollers, allowing owners to roll out depleted batteries and roll in new ones. A fire destroyed the company’s factory at a loss of $900,000—or $13.4 million today. The company recuperated, but demand for electric vehicles did not. By 1923, Milburn was gone, its factory bought by Buick.

1922 Detroit Electric 90

Although Henry Ford produced gas-powered cars, Clara, Henry’s wife, drove Detroit Electrics, which might not have done much for marital harmony. Nevertheless, Henry obtained a new one for her every other year from 1908 through 1914. It was manufactured by the Anderson Carriage Company, founded in 1884, which built EVs since 1907. Rated at 80 miles (129 km) of range, the company claimed to have run one more than 211 miles (340 km) before recharging. The firm managed to survive into the 1930s. The name has since been revived by a UK-based EV start-up.

1979 Volkswagen Elektro-Bus

Built between 1972 and 1976 for the German market, this all-electric variant of the Type 2 Microbus suffered from battery technology that hadn’t advanced in eight decades. With an 1,847 lb (838 kg) curb weight and powered by 72 lead-acid cells, it had 25 miles (40 km) of range. And if you thought a gas-powered Microbus was slow, consider this: it takes the Elektro-Bus 30 seconds to reach its top speed of 43 mph (69 km/h). About 70 were produced, including a similar model named the Elektro-Transporter.

Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in South Florida. He can be reached at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.

Listing image by John Kelly/The Washington Post via Getty Images



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