The modern era for electrified cars began in 1996, with the release of GM’s heralded, but short-lived, EV1. More mainstream electrified vehicles came to the U.S. market in 1999 and 2000, with the introduction of the hybrid Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, respectively. But electric vehicles are not a recent development. They actually date to the birth of the automobile with the earliest examples sharing the roads with horse-drawn buggies more than a century ago.
As far back as the 1830s, inventors in Scotland and Holland built crude, but operational, electric vehicles. By 1897, the technology was sufficiently mainstream that a fleet of EVs plied the streets of New York City as taxis.
So, let’s look at some of the more prominent electrified vehicles from the turn of the last century (plus one kerosene-powered car… for variety).
Baker Motor Vehicle Company
Baker Motor Vehicle Company was founded in Cleveland in 1899. It enjoyed considerable success at the dawn of the 20th Century and in 1906 was the world’s top electric car manufacturer. Walter Baker, the company’s founder, is credited as the first person to exceed 100 miles-per-hour, a feat he accomplished in a race-prepped car in 1902.
Famed inventor Thomas Edison not only owned a Baker, he also produced nickel-iron batteries for the company. Among current owners is Jay Leno, who noted that his 1909 Baker is so quiet, he has to be extra careful of deer when driving it in the hills.
Bakers came in a wide range of body styles and boasted 40- to 50-miles of range. The cars were comfortable and easy to operate compared to gasoline-powered competition, so the company marketed them to women as a no-fuss means of travel. Some even came with makeup kits. Though a Baker Victoria set a range record in 1910 by going 201 miles on a single charge, the company had a hard time competing with internal combustion cars, especially once easy-to-use electric starters were introduced in 1912. Baker closed its doors in 1915.
Commercial Truck Company
Want a four wheel drive with some personality? This is a 1912 Commercial Truck Company Model F-5.
The F-5 could reach 12 miles-per-hour and was rated to hold five tons in its flatbed. The truck has an 11-foot wheelbase and is about the length and width of a modern full-size pickup, but nearly three times as heavy at 14,500 pounds. It’s powered by four 16-horsepower GE electric motors – one at each of its solid rubber wheels. This red California truck has been in the collection of Brad Boyajian for 30 years. He’s now asking $100,000 for this piece of automotive history.
“This is one of about two dozen trucks purchased by Curtis Publishing of Philadelphia in the beginning of the 20th Century,” said Aaron Bento, of Bento Restorations, who maintains and restores Boyajian’s vintage vehicle collection. Curtis, publisher of such iconic magazines as The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal, used the trucks to haul paper and coal for decades, until finally retiring the fleet in the early 1960s. The trucks ran almost all day and night – since their lead-acid batteries came in removable oak boxes, spent batteries could be swapped out for fresh ones, as needed. Currently, the Commercial is powered by a set of 16 golf cart batteries, though Bento said recreating the lead-acid batteries it originally came with should not be difficult. “This is a big truck, but it’s extremely simple by modern standards. It really isn’t that hard to maintain.”
Commercial made a range of electric work trucks from 1906 to 1928. It was then purchased by Walker Vehicle Company, another electric work truck manufacturer, which itself survived until 1941.
Honda’s Insight is a groundbreaking car, but it trailed the first hybrid by nearly 100 years – Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche designed a gas-electric car back in 1901, well before founding his eponymous sports car company. In the U.S., hybrids were represented by the 1911-1917 Woods Dual Power Model 44 Coupe, which could be driven by gas or electric power. Another early hybrid is the subject of this subsection, the Owen Magnetic. During the Owen Magnetic brand’s brief existence from 1915 to 1922, it produced some of the most advanced cars you could buy.
They used a six-cylinder gas engine to power a 24-volt generator, which in turn juiced a traction motor turning the rear wheels. Since it had no clutch or gear shifter, Owen Magnetics were easier to drive and quieter than most cars of its day. They also featured an early form of regenerative braking so drivers could use the traction motor to bring the car to a near-stop, without touching the actual brakes.
Unfortunately, being one of the most advanced cars of its day, also made it one of the most expensive. The 1916 Owens Magnetic started at $3150 – about $74,000 in 2019 dollars, and eight times the starting price of Ford’s ubiquitous Model T. Sales were limited through 1918, when the company took on government contracts to support U.S. efforts in the World War. Financial difficulties after the war soon doomed the company. Surviving examples of the Owens Magnetic command top-dollar today – Bonhams recently auctioned a pristine 1916 convertible for $128,800.
Andrew Riker was an engineering genius who designed an electric vehicle when he was only 16 years old, in 1884. A few years later, he established the Riker Electric Motor Company in New York City. By 1899, he’d relocated the factory to Elizabeth, New Jersey and renamed it the Riker Electric Vehicle Company. Though he eventually moved onto producing steam- and gasoline-powered cars, it is his earliest electric cars that are most fascinating.
A 1898 Riker Electric is due to headline the Pacific Grove Auction in California August 15th. Worldwide Auctioneers is handling the event, and describes the Riker as “the most important electric car ever built.” The car was owned and raced by Andrew Riker himself, and reportedly reached 40 miles per hour. It also retains its original license plate, which Worldwide notes might be the first ever registered in the U.S.
The car’s estimated value was not listed, but “a lot” seems like a safe bet.
Electricity wasn’t the only alternative to the internal combustion engine. Steam-powered cars were also popular in the beginning of the 20th century, and the best known of these were from the Stanley Motor Carriage Company.
From 1902 to 1924, nearly 11,000 Stanley Steamers were produced in a range of models from two-passenger roadsters to 12-passenger “mountain wagons” used to transport hotel guests from nearby train stations. Most Steamers used kerosene (though gasoline would work in a pinch) to heat water and drive cylinders. With the engines geared directly to the rear-axle, the Stanley made do without a transmission, clutch, or driveshaft. This simplicity made them more reliable than internal-combustion cars of the day. In fact, the earliest Stanley steam engines only had 13 moving parts.
Stanleys were fast, too. In 1906, a Steamer set a world record by hitting 127 miles-per-hour, besting every other vehicle of its day, including aircraft.
Steamers weren’t perfect though. For one, they were fairly pricey vehicles – costing about four times as much as Ford’s ubiquitous Model T. It also took a while for the water to get hot enough to boil. “From a cold start, it would take about 30 to 45 minutes till you had enough steam to get going,” said Debbie Smith, executive director of the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine, birthplace of the car’s creators, twin brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley.
Range was another issue that eventually doomed the Steamers. Smith notes that while kerosene would return about 10 miles to the gallon, the Steamers also had a huge thirst for water – using a gallon for every mile to mile-and-a-half of travel. It was not uncommon for Steamer drivers to stop at wells, streams and horse troughs to top off their cars on longer trips.