The Electric Vehicle Company

The early success of electric cabs in America brought Morris and Salom’s invention to the attention of Isaac Leopold Rice, president of the Electric Storage Battery Company, of Philadelphia. Rice, a brilliant lawyer who had made his name saving ailing railroad companies from financial ruin, had snapped up many of the most promising patents on battery technology (at the turn of the twentieth century many American inventors made money by patenting ideas and selling them, rather than actually manufacturing anything).

His company held more than 500 such patents, including Charles F. Brush’s highly-prized patent on lead storage batteries, and had acquired them by snapping up rivals such as the Car Lighting and Power Company, the Lindstrom Brake Company and the Consolidated Railway Electric Lighting and Equipment Company. This relentless consolidation had made the Electric Storage Battery Company a highly successful enterprise, grossing its first million dollars in 1895 and installing batteries in the central power generating stations for cities across America. Rice enjoyed almost total domination of battery manufacturing and saw electric vehicles as a potential goldmine ripe for consolidation. Accordingly, he made Morris and Salom an offer they couldn’t refuse and, on 27 September 1897, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company became the Electric Vehicle Company.

Rice was in the perfect position: he manufactured the batteries and the vehicles. The Electric Vehicle Company had a guaranteed supply of discounted batteries from the Electric Storage Battery Company. Soon, improved Electrobat cabs were plying for trade in several major cities. In New York, operations were run out of an old indoor cycling rink on lower Broadway. The headquarters was hugely impressive, boasting a degree of integration hitherto unknown. The upper floor had space for 100 cabs and the lower was converted to be the charging area with space for 200 battery packs that were held in wooden racks.

The company’s business offices were located at the front of the building, while off-duty drivers had a place to relax at the rear. At each end of the battery room were massive elevators for raising and lowering cabs to the storeroom above. If a driver had finished his shift, and his carriage wasn’t needed, it was moved aside in the battery room, washed and cleaned before being transferred to the upper floor via the rear elevator.

The station eschewed its own electricity generator, preferring to take a supply from the Edison service. Rice took the company’s consolidation a stage further when he bought the Consolidated Rubber Tire Company and was able to supply the vehicles with discounted tyres – something they required frequently due to the fact that the 3-inch pneumatic tyres of the day struggled to cope with the great weight of an electric vehicle. By 1899, the EVC’s cabs were using 5-inch tyres made from half-inch robber hose and pumped to 60psi (414kPa).

But a programme of near constant upgrades took their toll on the hard-pressed fleet managers. Cabs were built in batches of fifty and each batch was different. Nothing was interchangeable – not even the batteries – leading to on-going maintenance problems and a looming spare parts headache.

Then Rice had a stroke of good luck. New York was hit by blizzards in December 1897 and the bad weather continued into January 1899. The snow and hard-packed ice made it impossible for horse-drawn cabs to operate but their battery-operated rivals had no such problems. The heavy battery packs and 5-inch tyres meant they could carry on no matter how inclement the conditions. Dejected horse-drawn cab companies were forced off the road. They even advised desperate customers to try their electric rivals. Suddenly, everyone needed an electric cab.

Although the cabs seemed to be working fine, management cut down on their mileages as a precaution. The drivers were ordered to return to base for fresh batteries every 10 or 12 miles (16–20km). As one contemporary writer noted, the battery-operated vehicles were ‘literally coining money’.

The EVC employed drivers to man its cabs – rather than lease the vehicles to owner-operators – and this seems to have caused problems because many of them had no prior experience of driving an electric cab. Battery maintenance was often neglected leading to high failure rates. The drivers were paid $2 a day, plus whatever tips they picked up from well-heeled passengers. In a bid to encourage greater productivity, the company also introduced a bonus scheme for drivers.

For all his acquisitive nature, Rice was, by most accounts, something of a benign business magnet. He was a keen chess player (the Rice Gambit is named after him) and a founder of the Poetry Society of America. When his electric submarine business ran aground during the financial panic of 1907, he covered many of its debts with his own money. Long after his death, the submarine business, and several others, would be consolidated into a new company called General Dynamics, which still remains one of the largest defence contractors in the world. Rice bought companies to combine them into a greater whole and had high hopes that the Electric Vehicle Company would be his greatest success. However, a syndicate of so-called electric-streetcar ‘traction magnets’, led by the politician, lawyer and businessman William C. Whitney, saw even greater potential in the EVC.

Whitney’s crew was made up of very powerful men. Whitney himself was a former United States Secretary of the Navy and his associates included Peter A. B. Widener, the former city treasurer of Philadelphia, and the Wall Street financier Thomas F. Ryan. Whitney had a home on New York’s exclusive Fifth Avenue and, as he sat looking out of a window during yet another blizzard in the big freeze of January 1899, he took note of how the electric cabs kept running when everything else was forced off the streets. The success of the little battery-powered cabs set Whitney thinking – could they be a beneficial adjunct to the syndicate’s streetcar interests?

No doubt, they were also keen to get their hands on Rice’s slew of battery patents in the hopes of creating another transport monopoly to go with their streetcar combine. Whitney envisaged creating a transport colossus with electric cabs and streetcars at its hub. The snow was still on the ground when Whitney and Ryan made their move and made Rice an offer he couldn’t refuse.

On 21 February 1899, the Electric Vehicle Transportation Company was incorporated with a notional working capital of $25m. Whitney’s consortium had to move quickly because it was already facing unwelcome competition from the Anglo-American Rapid Vehicle Company, a British syndicate that had held talks with the Studebaker Brothers about using their expertise to establish an electric taxi and light truck service in New York.

With no time to lose, the EVC announced immediate plans to launch satellite operations in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia (having incorporated the Philadelphia Motor Wagon Co. into the burgeoning EVC portfolio), as well as international services in London and Paris. To get the US franchises up and running as quickly as possible, cabs were sent from the existing fleet. Around forty were distributed between Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

At the same time, the EVC was cranking out electric cabs as fast as it could make them at its New York factory. Motors were bought in from the Westinghouse company (they had a capacity of 2bhp at 700rpm) and Studebaker provided the bodies, meaning the production process was both fast and effective. By December 1899, the factory had completed an impressive fleet of 200 cabs built to the very latest specifications. In the same year, Whitney and his fellow financiers pulled off a deal to acquire the electric vehicle interests of the Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut.

Colonel Albert Augustus Pope had made a mint from building bicycles and collecting on a number of cycle patents he held that forced other bicycle manufacturers to pay him royalties. At the height of cycling’s popularity, Pope’s factory was manufacturing around 250,000 bicycles every year under the Columbia brand name. Bicycles were more than just a business for Col. Pope. He was also a keen cyclist and a political lobbyist who fought for better roads on behalf of his fellow riders. Pope had started his business by importing Penny Farthings from Europe. Legend has it that during one trip to Paris he was shown a gasoline-powered car.

Shaking his head in disbelief he turned to a friend and asked: ‘Who would willingly sit atop an explosion?’. Other accounts attribute his comment to the moment when he was shown a prototype horseless carriage by one of his young engineers, Hiram Percy Maxim, who believed gasoline engines were the future. Whichever story is correct, there seems no doubt the Colonel was unconvinced by the internal combustion engine’s commercial potential until it could be perfected. Maxim later claimed that Pope told him ‘I believe this horseless carriage business will be one of the big businesses of the future’ and said one of his biggest regrets was the fact the bicycle baron had died before he saw his prediction come true.

Pope was sufficiently impressed by Maxim to give him the go-ahead to begin design work on an electric car. As part of his research, Maxim crewed an Electrobat, built by the enterprising Philadelphia duo Henry Morris and Pedro Salom, in the Chicago Times–Herald race. Although the race was won by a gas car, Maxim concluded that ‘only courageous men well equipped with tools, knowledge and spare parts’ could take on such a crude machine. Maxim had a working electric prototype ready the following April. Tests were conducted only at night in conditions of total secrecy and the Colonel set a provisional on-sale date of May 1897 for the first Columbia Electric Motor Carriage.

Despite the mounting excitement, Maxim, who was appointed chief engineer of the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company, never really gave up on the internal combustion engine. Later, he would become famous as the inventor of the car exhaust muffler, which did so much to make noisy gasoline engines bearable. He also invented the pistol silencer – the sinister-looking black canister screwed on to the nose of pistol-packing assassins in dozens Hollywood thrillers.

The Columbia factory, located in Hartford, Connecticut, was the first commercially viable electric car concern. When the first electric carriages were ready – bang on the Colonel’s provisional date of May 1897 – the unveiling was attended by celebrities such as John Jacob Astor and reported in newspapers and magazines as far afield as Great Britain. But the electric carriages were nothing without a charging infrastructure and so a service station was hurriedly opened in Newport.

Wealthy motorists could hire a vehicle for $150 a month and were allotted a mileage allowance of 600 miles (960km). Drivers were also available for those too nervous, or too lazy, to get behind the wheel themselves. This was before any notion of a driving test and the results were predictably disastrous with accident write-offs aplenty. The design was also licensed for overseas production in Germany, France, Belgium and Austria. Between 1897 and the summer of 1899, Columbia manufactured several hundred vehicles for domestic and overseas markets.

Pope was the country’s largest bicycle company and a prolific electric car manufacturer and, tantalizingly for Whitney and his backers, it had the capacity to build many more at its factory in Hartford. The deal – which came about after Whitney approached Col. Pope to discuss an order for several hundred cabs, then offered him a deal for the entire business – was concluded in April 1899. Pope split the automobile division of his company into a separate firm, the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company, and then sold half of it to Whitney.

The next year Col. Pope sold out completely and the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company became part of the rapidly expanding EVC empire, which also acquired the entire capital stock of the New Haven Carriage Company and its factory at New Haven. On 5 May 1899, the EVC purchased the Siemens and Halske Electric Company of America and The New York Times announced that the Chicago works would supply electrical components to its other plants for the construction of electric cabs.

Although Isaac L. Rice’s New York factory had proved up to the job of batch production, the EVC consortium had much larger numbers in mind. Pope’s Hartford manufacturing plant had both greater capacity and a more experienced workforce, giving it the edge over the cramped quarters in New York. If the EVC was to monopolize the market, Whitney and his investors needed overwhelming numerical superiority – a doctrine Whitney probably learned while serving as the US Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland from 1885 to 1889 – so, in February 1900, the decision was taken to move production to Connecticut.

The Hartford plant also had capacity to manufacture electric trucks and buses, another market identified by the EVC as ripe for exploitation. Whitney’s grand vision was for Hartford to build electric taxis, buses, wagons and light trucks, the Electric Storage Battery Company (which later became Exide) would supply the batteries and the Electric Vehicle Company would operate them in towns and cities across North America and Europe. It was an ambitious plan but Whitney and his fellow investors had backed the wrong technology. Big strides were being made in the development of the internal combustion engine and, soon, the EVC would face formidable competition.

New York-based EVC continued to sell the Columbia and, by 1900, the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company was based in the former Hartford bicycle factory, as well as the factory of the former New Haven Carriage Company, where the large proportion of bodies was made. According to an article in Electrical World and Engineer magazine, the company employed 1,500 men and it couldn’t satisfy orders fast enough.

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