Back to the Future in a 98-Year-Old Electric Car

Submitted by Charles Frost on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 19:17.


Jamie Rector for The New York Times

Jay Leno behind the steering tiller of his 1909 Baker Electric.


THE new hybrid Ford Escape taxis scuttling around New York City give their occupants an aura of environmental superiority. But as far as clean electric-powered cars are concerned, these high-mileage hybrids are actually a bit behind the times.

About 100 years behind.

Starting in 1914, the Detroit Taxicab and Transfer Company built and operated a fleet of nearly 100 electric cabs. Customers would often wait for a smoother, cleaner, more tasteful electric cab, even when a gas-powered cab was already on station.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

In an era in which gasoline-powered automobiles were noisy, smelly, greasy and problematic to start, electric cars, like Jay Leno’s restored 1909 Baker Electric Coupe, represented a form of women’s liberation. Well-dressed society women could simply drive to lunch, to shop, or to visit friends without fear of soiling their gloves, mussing their hair or setting their dresses on fire.

“These were women’s shopping cars,” said Mr. Leno, who is a serious hands-on collector of autos and motorcycles dating from the 1800s to the present. “There was no gas or oil, no fire, no explosions — you just sort of got in and you went. There were thousands of these in New York, from about 1905 to 1915. There were charging stations all over town, so ladies could recharge their cars while they were in the stores.”

Baker Electrics, Detroit Electrics, Rausch & Langs and other similar electric cars were comparatively reliable and easy to drive. Even the wives of legendary car company owners drove electrics.

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham until the 1930s, using it to visit friends and make her rounds on the family’s Michigan estate. Helen Joy, wife of Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, drove a 1915 Detroit Electric.

Mr. Leno’s Baker stands — and stands is the correct word — more than 7 feet tall. “It looks like a giant phone booth,” he said. Twelve 6-volt batteries are under the front and rear covers, six under each, to power the car’s 72-volt motor.

This particular Baker was originally equipped with Edison alkaline batteries. Baker customers had the option of these or more common lead-acid batteries.

The Edison batteries were the result of a research program the inventor conducted at the turn of the century to create lighter, more powerful batteries that would extend the range and speed of electric cars, just as inventors are trying to do today.

Instead of the lead plates and sulfuric acid used in batteries from the mid-19th century on, the Edison batteries used iron and nickelic oxide electrodes, and an alkaline electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. Early tests were promising, but the first production batteries were prone to leaking and electrode failure. Edison closed the factory in 1905 and reworked the batteries, finally resuming production four years later. The effort was obviously effective.

“I have modern lead-acid batteries in the car now, but I can still run the original Edison batteries,” Mr. Leno said. “You can just rinse them out, replace the electrolyte, and they’re ready to go. They still work fine, after almost a hundred years.”

The car’s electric motor, about the size of a watermelon, is visible under the car, driving the rear wheels via an enclosed-chain reduction system and a now-conventional driveshaft and differential.

“Since we restored it, I haven’t had to do much of anything to maintain it,” Mr. Leno said. “We just keep it charged up, grease it now and then, and drive it.

“I drive it from the garage up into the Hollywood Hills every year to see the Christmas lights,” he said. “The deer come right up to it and look inside. Because there’s no noise, no vibration, no gasoline smell, they’re completely unafraid.

“It’ll go for about four or five hours on a single charge, at about 20 to 25 miles an hour. Its range is about 110 miles, just about what most electric cars made these days will do. So we really haven’t come very far in a hundred years.

“It’s pretty fun to drive, actually — if you’re not in a hurry, that is,” he said. “Women love it.”

One does not so much enter the Baker as climb it. Once inside, it’s apparent that the designers were less intent on building a vehicle than they were in creating an ornate mobile parlor. Every surface is covered in expensive fabric or carpet, and the doors have braided cords, tassels and embroidered straps. Plump button-tucked bench seats, front and rear, face each other, as they would in the booth of a Victorian tea room. The driver sits on the left of the rear bench. If there are passengers in the front seat, the driver has to look around them to steer.

Which is not as much of a problem as one might expect, given the Baker’s lofty driving position and modest top speed of 25 miles an hour.

There is no steering wheel. At first glance there are few indications that the Baker was meant to be driven at all. A long steering tiller folds down from the left once the driver is seated; the driver pushes forward to steer left and pulls back to go right.

Speed is controlled by a lever just forward of the driver’s left elbow, and there are two brake pedals protruding from the carpet, one for each rear wheel.

On the road, the tall cabin tilts on its springs in corners, giving the sensation of driving a rubber-mounted lifeguard tower. “As you can see, we’ve come a long way in aerodynamics since 1909,” Mr. Leno said. “All the windows — the sides, the rear and the windshield — can be opened up, so you can get a nice breeze running through.”

Driving a car this rare — and this tall — makes its limited speed less of a problem in modern city traffic. Drivers of other vehicles inevitably slow to check out the Baker anyway.

Restoring an early electric requires some ingenuity. Electric motors haven’t changed much in the nearly 200 years since they were invented, so a shop that can rebuild an antique ceiling fan should be able to rewind the armature of an electric motor. Modern deep-cycle batteries, like those used in golf carts, electric boats and neighborhood electric vehicles, can be readily substituted for the originals.

Relatively few electric cars have survived, and their appeal is more that of an oddity or museum piece than that of a better-known classic automobile. So their prices have remained reasonable. According to the Web site of the Gold Book, which is published by Manheim Auctions and tracks prices paid at collector-car auctions, a well-maintained 1915 Baker, a very similar Rauch & Lang, or a Detroit Electric should sell for $9,000 to $20,000, depending on its condition.

Collectors are often attracted to the cars owned by their fathers. With one of these electrics, they can drive a machine that might have been driven by their great-grandmothers.