The Battle for America

It was a very different story in America, where electric cars kept pace with the internal combustion competition until Ford’s game-changing Model T arrived. Why was this? The greater urbanization of American cities made getting about in an electric car far easier and the electric car industry made a more determined effort to create a viable charging infrastructure. Electricity was widely available and recharging a battery overnight was a minor inconvenience compared to hand-cranking a cold internal combustion engine into life first thing on a morning.

As the world’s largest manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages and harnesses, it was inevitable that Studebaker should take an interest in automobiles. The company built its first ‘horseless vehicle’ in the spring of 1897, when Frederick Fish, chairman of the executive committee, persuaded the company to put up $4,000 in development funds. By 1899, Studebaker was building bodies for third parties on a contractual basis. An early customer was the bicycle baron, Colonel Albert Augustus Pope, whose Columbia brand was one of the biggest names in electric cars.

Three years later, Studebaker launched its own range of cars and trucks. The first electric carriage was sold to a Mr F. W. Blees, of Macon, on 12 February 1902. Its second customer was Thomas Edison. The vehicles, which were based on the company’s earlier carriage designs, were manufactured at a factory in South Bend, Indiana.

In its first year Studebaker Electric sold a mere twenty ‘electric runabouts’. Initially they only seated two people sitting side-by-side, but a larger four-passenger model was introduced in 1904 when production was in full swing. The handsome 1905 Victoria Phaeton was offered in gas and electric variants, the electric being for city and suburban driving with its softer springs, which gave a smoother drive on rough roads. The gasoline version was aimed at the adventurer who longed for a life on the open road.

Between 1904 and 1911, Studebaker Electric sold 1,841 electric vehicles (including electric buses) before abandoning the concept.

The decision was announced in a terse statement that read:

The production of electric automobiles at South Bend has ended. It has been conducted for nine years without much success and, ultimately, the superiority of the gasoline engine is apparent.

Another advertisement for the Studebaker
Another advertisement for the Studebaker

In Chicago, entrepreneur Clinton E. Woods founded the Woods Motor Vehicle Company in 1898, although its early attempts at building a carriage-style electric were flawed, to say the least. In 1900, it unveiled the curiously-named Spider, a horseless hansom carriage powered by a small electric motor mounted ahead of the rear wheels. The power was transmitted through a chain drive with differential pulleys.

Steering was via the front wheels and the driver nominally controlled the Spider via a curved tiller, which connected to the front wheels via two long rods running beneath the bench seat. As with so many horseless carriage designs of the period, the Spider’s steering control was rudimentary at best. As the driver sat above and behind the passengers, the steering rods were both too long and too flexible. What worked well with a horse, didn’t work with an electric motor set-up.

Several manufacturers noted this problem and moved the driver closer to the steering wheels. Later designs added gearing and extra linkages to better translate the driver’s hand movement into steering effort.

As if the vague steering wasn’t handicap enough, the Spider had another drawback. As it was a convertible, the driver’s view of the road ahead was limited to a small window when the hood protecting the passengers was in place. In cold weather and rain, condensation made it almost impossible to see through. Woods quickly realized its mistake and revised the design, putting the driver ahead of his passengers.

This was ironic given that the company’s adverts for the original Spider said:

Don’t wait for lower prices or ‘improvements’! The Woods electrics today are reasonable in price and thoroughly effective twentieth-century automobiles – noiseless, odourless, free from danger. Their method of construction cannot be surpassed and the workmanship and material are of the finest quality.

Buyers who fell for the sales pitch must have been annoyed when the company introduced a significantly improved model less than 12 months later.

Regardless of the Spider’s drawbacks, Woods became well-known for applying its fine coach-building skills to electric vehicles. Many had electric side-lights (or lanterns), an illuminated interior and even electric ‘foot warmers’ for those chilly mornings. In other ways, however, Woods was behind the times. Its vehicles used wooden carriage-style wheels, when rivals like the Columbia were already exploiting the advantages of pneumatic tyres. Indeed, the heavy duty pneumatic tyres fitted to the Columbia Motor Carriage were a major selling point. Said to be good for 3,500 miles (5,600km), they were practically immune to the possibility of a puncture.

Columbia went head-to-head with Woods at the top of the market. Its electric brougham cost $3,500 and was fashioned from the finest materials for discriminating buyers. Silk curtains, a mirror, speaking tube (for communicating with the driver who sat outside like coachman) silver perfume bottles and an umbrella holder were standard.

To avoid embarrassing breakdowns, there was a simple meter (dubbed the wattmeter) on the dashboard indicating the condition of the batteries. The company also devised a crude ignition key system – an aluminium safety plug, a bright red cap about the side of a cricket ball that was inserted into the main circuit, which, when removed, prevented the carriage from starting. It also doubled up as an emergency ‘kill switch’ in the event of an accident.

Colonel Pope, of course, sold Columbia to the Electric Vehicle Company – but he wasn’t done with cars. He tried to re-enter the car market by acquiring several smaller vehicle companies and built several impressive models. Some, such as the Pope–Waverley Battery Wagon, used Edison batteries, which were more robust than other lead-acid designs. Others placed a greater emphasis on performance. The Pope–Waverley Tonneau of 1904 was fitted with twin electric motors that could produce 12bhp in a special ‘overload mode’ giving a top speed of 15mph (24km/h).

Despite these innovations, the colonel’s new company never regained the market position he had once enjoyed. The days of low volume/high price production were drawing to a close and Pope declared bankruptcy in 1907, when his company could not pay debts of $4,306.30. Ironically, the Electric Vehicle Company also called in the receiver the same year.

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