It may seem as if the rush to alternative fuels and electric/hybrid cars is a new fad, but in fact this has been around for as long as vehicles themselves. It may be surprising to realize that there were dozens of companies operating at the turn of the century who produced electric cars and batteries. Efforts at producing a viable electric car were eventually left off as the gas engine became dominant. This list presents ten companies who designed and manufactured electric cars over 100 years ago.
While popular in the early 1900s, the decline of the electric vehicle was brought about by several major developments:
- By the 1920s, America had a better system of roads that now connected cities, bringing with it the need for longer-range vehicles.
- The discovery of Texas crude oil reduced the price of gasoline so that it was affordable to the average consumer.
- The invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912 eliminated the need for the hand crank.
- The initiation of mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford made these vehicles widely available and affordable in the $500 to $1,000 price range. By contrast, the price of the less efficiently produced electric vehicles continued to rise. In 1912, an electric roadster sold for $1,750, while a gasoline car sold for $650.
Interesting Video Showing Features and History of the Early Electric Car
10. Baker Motor Vehicle Co – 1898-1915
The Baker Motor Vehicle Company was founded by Walter C. Baker in 1897, and became one of the top motor vehicle innovators of the early era. Although best known for the electric cars that bear his name, and his early land speed records, Baker came up with technologies and manufacturing processes that helped make all cars practical, such as modern ball bearings, steering knuckles, the fully floating rear axle with worm-gear shaft-drive (patented 1901), and vanadium alloy steel, which is a vital chemical compound that allows batteries to operate without corroding. In addition to passenger cars, the Baker company also built a race car, in the form of the 3,000 lb, $10,000, tandem seat, Torpedo (sling seats with seat belts) with a 12 HP Elwell-Parker motor, and the smaller 750 lb, single seat, Torpedo Kid. The electric racer was clocked at 120 MPH in test runs. In 1915 General Electric acquired a significant stake in the company, and Baker stopped producing cars in 1916. As a legacy claim to fame, the second car made by the company was bought by Thomas Edison.
9. The New England Electric Automobile Co – 1899-1901
The New England Electric Vehicle Co. of Boston, Ma produced the New England Electric car from 1899 to 1901. Only a few hundred two passenger Runabout New England Electric cars were made. The New England Electric was built under the patents of the Barrows Vehicle Co. of Willimantic CT. The Barrows produced three wheeler electrics in 1897 and 1898.
8. The J. M. Quinby and Co – 1899-1900
In the late 1800s one of the oldest carriage makers in the United States was J. M. Quinby and Co. They produced “horseless carriages” beginning in 1834. In 1899 and 1900 the J. M. Quinby and Co. produced an Electric Automobile called the Quinby. Only a very few Quinby Electrics were built and those were built to order using components from the Riker Electric Vehicle Co. of Elizabethport, N.J.
7. The Pope Manufacturing Co -1895 – 1898
The Pope Manufacturing Co. was one of the worlds most successful bicycle makers. The head of the company was certain that electric was the way to go and in 1896 had Maxim build two proto-types, the Mk I electric (with the motor on the axle), and Mk II two-stroke gasoline car (a failure). Ten production Columbia Electric Mk III cars were produced by May 1897. They weighed only 1,900 lbs. of which 800 lbs. was the battery, as they were built on carbon steel bicycle tube frames. The Mk III could go 30 miles at 12 mph powered by a two-horse Eddy motor that weighed 120 lbs. This was the first reliable commercially available automobile in North America, and for Pope confirmed his belief that electric propulsion was the future of personal transportation. In early 1900 the company was taken over by the Electric Vehicle Co. as part of a scheme to create an electric cab monopoly. The Columbia brand continued as a gasoline car under various owners until 1912, Waverly continued making electrics under new owners until 1916.
6. Riker Electric Motor Co – 1888-1899
Company founder Andrew Lawrence Riker was inspired when he made a modified bicycle, with a large outrigger wheel driven by a 1/6 hp motor. Riker set up business in 1888 making electric motors based on his patents. Between 1888 and 1890 he rigged two Remington bicycles together to create his four wheeled “motor cycle”, it weighed 315 lbs. His company made a full range of electric vehicles from 1895-1902, from a light two-seat tricycle up to a five-ton truck. The two motor Riker cars were made with a motor driving each rear wheel by means of a spur gear on the motor driving a ring gear on the wheel. While this is simple, efficient, and avoids the need for a differential, it means that the motors must be mounted in rigid alignment to the wheel. This creates a lot of un-sprung weight, a liability on all but the smoothest roads. The gears were exposed to abrasive dust and pebbles that would gum up the works, affecting longevity and reliability. The Electric Vehicle Company purchased Riker for stock in December 1900 for Riker’s patents. The Elizabethport plant was closed late in 1901.
5. Krieger-Brasier 1903-1906
The Krieger Electric is hailed as one of the first hybrid vehicles, using both gas and battery power. This car is a front wheel drive electric-gasoline hybrid car and has power steering. A gasoline engine supplements the battery pack. Between 1890 and 1910, there were many hybrid electric cars and four wheel drive electric cars. At the time, electric cars were actually more expensive than gasoline cars and electrics were considered more reliable and safer.
4. Woods Motor Vehicle Co, Chicago Illinois – 1899
Clinton Edgar Woods wrote the first book on electric vehicles. This was Woods’ second company, after American Electric. The Woods Company built their own motors. The bodies were made by the Fisher Equipment Co. Willard, with Sipe and Sigler, made the batteries. The company produced the Dual Power Model 44 Coupe from 1911 to 1918, which sold for $2,700, a substantial amount at the time. The car had a 4 cylinder internal combustion engine as well as electric power. Below 15 mph (24 km/h) the car was electric powered and above it the conventional engine took over to take the vehicle to a maximum of around 35 mph (56 km/h). It is today considered a historic hybrid electric vehicle far ahead of its time.
3. Ward Electrical Car Company, London – 1888-1896
Founded by Radcliff Ward who designed a battery bus, he then hired Walter C Bersey as his chief engineer. The company had an exhibit at the Worlds Columbian Exposition (1893). In 1896 big capitol came in to build a lead bus/cab syndicate for London and the name was changed to the London Electric Omnibus Company.
2. Porsche Electric – 1900
The electric Porsche was designed by the founder himself, Ferdinand Porsche, and won the award for “most innovative invention” at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. This electric car was different from modern versions because it had an electric motor in each front wheel, meaning that though simple, the design was efficient, allowing 83% of all energy expended to go directly to moving the car, as opposed to about 40%, which is roughly the amount used by the average modern internal combustion engine. The car back then went at a top speed of about 30 mph, and different racing versions of it went up to 37 mph, with races often won by Porsche himself. This was a good speed for the time.
1. Electric Vehicle Co – 1899-1907
This company was the new incarnation of the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. re-formed by financiers to create a taxicab monopoly, first in New York, then in all major cities. They bought the company and merged it with Pope’s car division Columbia Motor-Carriage (to make the taxies) in April of 1899 as the Columbia Automobile Company. A month later it was reorganized as the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company when Pope was bought out in June 1900. The company finally became part of the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC), of which the most profitable holding was the Electric Storage Battery Co of Philadelphia, as their profit was in battery sales rather then the success of the taxi enterprises. The company acquired Riker in December 1900 for its patents and manufacturing plant. As many as 1,000 cabs were built by various acquired coachworks and contractors, including 100 bodies by Studebaker that were ordered in June 1899. The early design lead battery weighed about a ton and was removed and recharged after every trip. The cab company in New York was moderately profitable and lasted till 1912. With the electric cab fleet diluted by gasoline cabs after 1907, they were gone by 1910). However, EVC had more debt then their income could support and did not survive the 1907 bank panic, which as the collapse of 73 banks.
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