Disaster-The Baker Torpedo

Just as a disillusioned Pope was contemplating bankruptcy, another American company, the Baker Motor Vehicle Company, in Cleveland, Ohio, was claiming to be the world’s biggest manufacturer of electric cars. Founded by Walter C. Baker in 1899, with money from two businessmen who had made their fortunes selling sewing machines, the first Baker Runabout was a two-seater. It had a 0.75bhp motor that was fed by ten batteries. An early customer was Thomas Edison who was working on a new battery specifically for automotive applications. Having sampled the Runabout’s measly 20-mile (32 km) range, he redoubled his efforts.

Baker, however, was no slouch as an inventor himself and is credited with many discoveries, including the fully floating rear axle and the steering knuckle joint. New models followed and Baker’s reputation for exceptional vehicles soon spread far and wide. The company was even commissioned to build a special for the King of Siam. No expense was spared: the side panels and front carried the royal crest, the body was finished in ivory and the folding soft-top was fashioned from white leather. All the metalwork was silver plated and the handles for the levers were crafted from pearl. Inside the finest clothes and materials were used, including lace tapestry and silk. No wonder Baker called its buyers: ‘The aristocrats of motordom’.

Like Jenatzy in Europe, Baker hoped to prove the supremacy of electric power by setting a new land-speed record. The Baker Torpedo (which was built to Baker’s own specifications and dubbed a ‘freak’ by newspapers) had a small tube-like pine body that was covered with a stretched oil-cloth skin. There was just enough room for the driver and a mechanic who sat in tandem in hammock-style seats. Their heads poked up above the shapely body into a fully enclosed cockpit and Baker looked out of a conning tower on the top with a six by two inch opening glazed with isinglass. His co-pilot, company chief mechanic C. A. Denzer, was kept very much in the dark. His job was to switch the battery as the car gained power.

The cells fed a Elwell–Parker motor, placed behind the cockpit rather like a modern Formula One racing car, which transmitted 12 bhp to the rear wheels via a chain drive. The forty batteries were liberally scattered around the chassis. Most of them sat in front of the crew but lack of space dictated that some were behind their backs near the motor, and still more were sited behind the rear suspension. Sitting on its 36-inch wheels shod with 3-inch pneumatic tyres, the sleek-looking Torpedo was 18ft (5m) long and weighed a hefty 3,100 lb (1,406 kg). A coat of sinister black paint was probably good for an extra 10 mph (16 km/h).

Motor:Elwell–Parker driving the rear wheels
Max power:12 bhp
Top speed:130 mph (208 km/h) (claimed)
Drive:twin chain
Length:216 in (5,486 mm)
Weight:3,100 lb (1,406 kg)
Baker Torpedo

Baker confidentially predicted that the Torpedo wouldn’t so much break the world speed record as shatter it into little pieces, and chose the Automobile Club of America’s speed event, at Staten Island Boulevard, in New York, to prove it.

Having witnessed record-breaking runs by twenty-four motorcycles and steam cars earlier in the day, the large crowd’s anticipation was at fever pitch when the Baker Torpedo rolled up to the start line. With a quick salute and a pat on the back from Denzer, the Torpedo accelerated away down the mile-long straight.

Further down the track disaster awaited. Just below a slight kink in the road, at the junction of Lincoln Avenue and South Boulevard, the organizers had covered trolley lines with heavy layer of loose dirt that had been kicked up by the earlier runs. As the rails became exposed, the bikes and cars racing down the straight would buck and jolt as they crashed over them. Records were being smashed but gradually the crowd drifted to the place where, as one spectator put it, the cars ‘were taking the hurdles’. Everyone was looking forward to seeing ‘the demon’ from Cleveland.

Suddenly someone shouted ‘Here she comes’ and in the distance a cigar-shaped object appeared in a whirlwind of dust.

The New York Times of 1 June 1902 took up the story:

It was like a torpedo striking the water on leaving the tube of a battleship but it was apparent, even to the most inexperienced, that there was something the matter. The racing machine was not keeping a straight course… but swerving from side-to-side.

The fraction of a second before the machine struck the rails it moved in a straight line. Then it made a leap in the air like a deer shot through the heart when in full flight. It turned to the right, straight for the greatest number of the crowd. The machine swept to the left in a wide circle and tore up the left bank, throwing people there into the air as it swept them and the small trees before it, and then stopped, the two wheels on the right side being torn to pieces.

To the side of the wrecked demon, Andrew Featherstone, a tax assessor from New Brighton, lay dead and several others were injured. Sixty-eight year old John Bogart died of his injuries later in hospital. In a bizarre scene, rescuers were serenaded by a ragtime band that struck up a jolly tune unaware of the disaster that had taken place. The bandsmen only stopped when police threatened to club them into submission.

Luckily for Baker and Denzer, the Torpedo was one of the first cars to have seatbelts – a factor that probably saved them from serious injury. ‘Otherwise their brains must have been battered out against the ceiling or the forward machinery,’ observed The Times.

Accounts differ as to what caused the tragedy. Some suggest spectators had strayed on to the track to get a better view of the speeding car and the wheel failed when Baker applied the brakes. Others say that Baker over-corrected on a slight bend in the track, snagging a wheel in a streetcar track and wrenching it loose. After an emotional reunion with his wife, the shaken driver and his battered mechanic left the scene for a nearby hotel where they were arrested for homicide. The charges were dropped when it became obvious the crowd had pushed through barricades set up for their own protection.

Sadly, the tragedy meant Baker’s efforts went unrecognized. The driver said he believed the torpedo had reached 80 mph (129 km/h) before the accident and some accounts put the speed even higher at more than 100mph (129km/h). If so, then Baker undoubtedly smashed the record – it would be another two years before such a speed was officially recognized as a record. In the right conditions, Baker said, the Torpedo was capable of 130 mph (209 km/h). Although it was repaired – and even exhibited at Crystal Palace, in London, in 1903 – the would-be record-breaker was retired from competition. Baker tried again with another vehicle, the smaller and lighter Torpedo Kid, which had a similar layout minus the enclosed cockpit, but his efforts were always dogged by misfortune. So many things went wrong that he was dubbed ‘Bad Luck Baker’. After another crash into spectators during a race, Baker gave up his motorsports career for good.

The Baker torpedo
The Baker torpedo

In stark contrast to his efforts at breaking records, the car manufacturing side of things was enjoying great success. In 1906, Baker made 800 cars, making it the largest electric vehicle manufacturer in the world at that time. Its advertisements claimed its factory was the largest in the world devoted exclusively to making electric automobiles. It modestly described the Baker Electric Brougham as ‘the most exquisite creation known to the automobile world’. By the following year the company offered a seventeen-strong line-up of cars ranging from the Stanhope, a simple upgrade of the original Runabout, to the ‘Inside Drive’ (so named because the driver sat behind a windshield) Coupé.

Baker’s impressive 50,000 ft2 (4,645 m2) showroom stood on the junction of East 71st Street and Euclid Avenue, the heart of Cleveland’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’. The Arts and Crafts-style brick building boasted large windows revealing the oak panel wall showroom, where the various Baker automobiles stood on a ceramic tile floor and were floodlit at night. On the second floor there were small ‘sleeping rooms’ where exhausted chauffeurs could rest. At the rear there was a workshop where wealthy owners had their vehicles recharged. The showroom would outlive the company. After a period as a finishing shop, then a printers, it was redeveloped as a bio-tech lab and, in November 2010, became the first building in Ohio to be fitted with a public charging station for electric cars.

Baker went on to join General Electric, where he eventually became Vice President, and helped create America’s first national television standard as founder of the National Television System Committee.

In 1913, Baker ceded market leadership to Detroit Electric, and in 1915 it merged with another Cleveland car manufacturer, Rauch and Lang to become Baker, Rauch and Lang. The merger was something of a shotgun wedding as R & L had infringed Baker’s patents. The last cars to carry the Baker name were made in 1916, although industrial truck production continued.

In Paris, the other hotbed of electric vehicle development in the early twentieth century, the Hautier Cab Company solved the hansom cab problem by the simple expedient of jacking the driver’s seat up so that his eye line was above the roof of the cab. Hautiers were highly popular among wealthy Parisians at the turn of the century for their surprising turn of speed, silent running and novelty.

However, the threat posed by internal combustion engines was now very real – after a good deal of development it was becoming clear that gasoline offered infinitely more possibilities than battery power. Ironically, the man who would do more to kill off the electric car than any other would start out working for a company owned by Thomas Edison.

Henry Ford grew up on a farm in Dearborn and took a job at the Edison Illuminating Company, in Detroit. Ford quickly rose through the ranks to become chief engineer. In August 1896, he attended an Edison convention held at the Old Manhattan Beach Hotel, in Manhattan Beach, just a few miles from Coney Island. The conventions had become an annual event for chief engineers and managers of Edison plants to get together and discuss ideas. The great and the good sat at a large oval table with Edison at the head. To his right sat Charles Edgar, President of the Boston Edison Company, and next to him sat Ford.

During the afternoon the discussions turned to horseless carriages and the commercial opportunities of using electric power. Suddenly, Alexander Dow, President of the Detroit Edison Company, pointed across the table to Ford and said: ‘There’s a young fellow who has made a gas car’. The various engineers urged Ford to outline his theories and, as he did so, he noticed Edison taking a keen interest. Eventually, Ford was ushered to the head of the table where he sat next to the great inventor (who was decidedly deaf). Ford was grilled for information and resorted to sketching out his designs on the table.

As he outlined his plans for a gasoline-powered car, Edison suddenly brought his fist down on the table with a bang and said:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained – carries its own power plant – no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it…. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was, but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me complete approval. The man who knew most about electricity in the world had said that, for the purpose, my gas motor was better than any electric motor could be – it could go long distances, he said, and there would be stations to supply the cars with hydro-carbon. And this at a time when all the electrical engineers took it as an established fact that there would be nothing new and worthwhile that did not run by electricity.

Whether he knew it or not, Edison’s thump on the table had been a wake-up call for Henry Ford, and dealt the electric car a fatal blow.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison (1847–1931), the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park (the township of New Jersey where he built his first industrial research lab), was arguably the greatest inventor of his day. Among the many innovations he is credited with discovering or developing are the incandescent electric light bulb, the power station, the voice-recording phonograph, the carbon microphone and the motion picture camera.

When he met Henry Ford, Edison was already a rich man thanks to his inventions and the success of the Edison Electric Light Company.

Although his hopes of building electric cars came to nothing, he did see electricity used to power trains. Shortly before he died, he rode in the cabin of the very first electric train to leave Hoboken, Hudson County, and helped drive it all the way to Dover, in New Jersey.

Bizarrely, Edison’s ‘last breath’ is supposedly contained in a test tube held at the Henry Ford Museum, Ford having convinced the inventor’s son Charles to seal a container of air from the room shortly after he passed away.

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