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Joy Riding in a Time Machine: Baker's Electric Cars

The 1912 Baker Special Extension Coupe, as seen in the catalogue, was marketed directly to the wealthy women drivers. These were considered the fashionable way to travel to social and shopping excursions in the city. (Image courtesy of The Horseless Carriage Foundation Automotive Research Library, La Mesa, CA @ www.hcfi.org)

They were efficient, beautiful machines. When production peaked with over 30,000 electric cars on the road by 1912, battery operated vehicles seemed to be the way of the future. Upscale clientele had owned electrics for over a decade by then and the elegant electric automobiles were considered the most luxurious way to travel within a 100-mile range, between charging stations.

They drove without a sound, because there were no vibrations from a rumbling motor. They were considered maintenance free. There were no odors nor emissions, since they were battery operated. Automobiles with gas engines also had gas head and tail lamps that were lit with a flaming match. Battery operated cars had glowing electrical lighting both inside and out that. Electric cars also did not require the rough handling involved with shifting gears. Their speed was regulated by the gentle push and pull on a tiller, instead of a steering wheel. It was called a “steering rod.”

Perhaps the essential attraction to electric cars was the ease of the starter. Driver and passengers would slide into their sumptuous automobiles, and with a simple twist of a key or nudge against button and switch, off they’d go.

Gasoline motored vehicles were difficult, and often dangerous, to start. Certain physical strength was required to crank the starter and it was essential to have a clear understanding of just how to adjust the choke. Gas powered engines would often backfire unexpectedly, causing the iron handle to kick back violently in the opposite direction. Broken thumbs, arms and dislocated shoulders were common injuries attributed to hand-cranked starters.

Most models of electric cars traveled best over paved streets and this made the vehicle all the more appealing to professional men who lived and worked in a city. Baker Electric advertisements advised that their cars were well suited for town and professional uses of men as for the social uses of women. The automobiles were considered not only safe for women drivers and their families but were exceedingly fashionable. Companies targeted their advertising campaigns through chic, high fashion magazines such as Vogue, Ladies Home Companion and The Designer with beautiful illustrations depicting refined, well-to-do woman traveling by electric auto to their most important social events or elegant shopping excursions. New York City even had a large fleet of elegant electric taxicabs available for those very reasons, with charging stations installed about every 10 blocks.

Baker Electric Motor-Vehicle Company was the leading electric car manufacturer in the United States by 1912. Magazine and newspaper advertisements featured a long list of showrooms where Walter C. Baker’s fully electric, battery-operated cars and trucks were sold. Showrooms were located in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Memphis, Cincinnati as well as Decatur, Illinois. Westward expansion was planned to Seattle and other cities throughout the United States that year, especially promoting their new line of “Commercial Vehicles for every purpose.”

Out of the many competing electric car companies, Walter C. Baker’s cars were especially sumptuous. One of his most exclusive models, the Baker Special Extension Coupe, had a starting price of $2700. This coupe was as tall as it was long, with sleek patent leather fenders, “fully skirted to the body.” Passengers rode high off the ground, enjoying panoramic views through beautifully arched, curtained windows surrounding the automobile.

Baker’s most lavish cars were custom designed to the buyer’s specifications. Choices included buttery soft leather seats, or fully upholstered interiors with sumptuous imported fabrics. Both seating and walls were typically tufted, tasseled and trimmed in rich brocades and satins against ornate hardware. Opulent fresh flower vases were attached to the walls, lit by an electric dome light. There was an ornate clock stationed next to a mirrored “toilet case” or vanity where passengers could touch up their hair, and add a puff of powder to their cheeks before leaving the vehicle.

Baker’s 1912 catalogue was 24 pages long and he carefully described and illustrated each car. He stated that the automobiles’ batteries were: 30 cells 11 M. V. Hycap-Exide. Ironclad-Exide at extra cost.”

He wrote, “It is not unusual for a Baker Electric to make 100 miles on a single charge, which is a very considerable distance for any town car or suburban vehicle. In the hands of expert drivers a Baker Electric Victoria has been driven 244 miles on a single charge, establishing thereby the World’s Record.”

Although Baker’s Stanhope model sold for as little as $1000, the masculine, open topped Runabout coupe was priced at $2000. It was a “racy model designed for the professional and business man who wants more speed and mileage than the ordinary electric affords.”

The Baker Extension Brougham was the most expensive. It was marketed as a “five passenger vehicle, all facing forward, therefore permitting an unobstructed view for the driver.” Designed for wealthy families, the Brougham came in black with blue, green or maroon panels, with the unique feature that both the driver and front passenger seats were made to swivel in any direction, “ingeniously arranged for most convenient entrance and egress.” The Brougham was priced at $3500, which was exceptionally expensive during a year when the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded the annual salary of a school teacher at $507, a professional printer at $667, and the well paid, city minister claimed $1092, which was also comparable to the average attorney’s salary.

Walter C. Baker started his car company in 1897 at Cleveland, Ohio when he was 29 years old. Within the first few years, he designed the fastest fully electric racing car to promote his work in the electrics automotive field. As its name suggested, The Road Torpedo was truly aerodynamic in design. Its sharply elliptical fuselage encapsulated two men within the interior: the driver as well as the electrician, who was also brakeman.  

Baker’s Torpedo was the first car to successfully break the 100 mph land speed barrier in 1902, during several initial test runs along Ormond Beach, Florida.  It was during the final run when Baker claimed to have reached 127 mph, but the racing car crashed when its wheels fell off.

A few months later, Walter Baker went on to test his most powerful racing version of the Torpedo at Staten Island. He hoped to officially achieve the land speed record against all the other gasoline powered autos in a bold attempt to prove his electric vehicles to the general public.

The time trials were set for Memorial Day weekend, 1902. The world’s fastest and most technologically advanced cars were set to race against time over a street course laid out by the Automobile Club of America and local aldermen.

According to the Richmond Co. Advance, published the following week, thousands of people lined what is now called Hylan Boulevard. The roadway ran through a somewhat rural section of Staten Island, not far from the beach, where two tourist hotels were located. The course included a few turns and an uphill section. Spotting stages were set up along the way, where officials clocked the individual cars with stopwatches.

The newspaper described Baker’s racing car as “a curious-looking affair, built entirely for speeding purposes, and propelled by electricity. The lower part of the ‘auto’ consisted of a regular horseless carriage frame, upon which was placed the storage batteries used for furnishing the power, while the upper part was built similar to a torpedo boat.”

The reporter went on to label the electric Torpedo a “freak” but complimented the power Baker managed to achieve over the majority of the course. Then, according to eye-witnesses, something terrible happened within 220 yards of the finish line. The Torpedo suddenly went “beyond the control of the driver as it began to sway and jump in an alarming manner from left to right, and finally dashed off the roadway on the left, crashing into a number of spectators.”

“As the machine struck the crowd it turned a somersault and then fell over, and everything was hidden in a cloud of dust.”

Other newspapers claimed that Baker lost control when the wheels of the Torpedo caught in trolley tracks, while subsequent court records blamed the accident on the instability of the car’s frame. Whatever the cause, the race ended in tragedy. Two gentlemen were killed, and seven others suffered multiple life-threatening injuries, marking the first time when a fatality was suffered by a spectator during a motoring event.

Yet, Walter Baker’s car was clocked at 102 mph just before he lost control, which was 34 mph faster than the existing land-speed record. The Advocate stated that just before he lost control, Baker sped past the three-quarter-mile mark in just over 34 seconds.

Both Walter Baker and his co-driver, E.C. Denzer, survived the crash. Their only injuries, according to court reports, were scratches on foreheads and scalps caused when onlookers attempted to pry the wreckage away from the men. Their survival was attributed to the seat belts they wore and this was another first for automotive history.

Walter Baker’s recorded speed surpassed the coveted record that day, but the crash disqualified him from the race. In fact, both men were immediately arrested and put in jail for murder before charges were later dropped.

Baker ended his racing endeavors not long after that fateful Memorial Day weekend, focusing instead on the commercial development of electric automobile production. Within a decade, The Baker Motor Vehicle Company sold tens of thousands of electric cars to the world’s wealthiest and most influential people. Baker’s electric cars were used in the fleet at The White House, and even the King of Siam ordered one. It was said to have been trimmed in ivory and gold.

Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric self-starter for gasoline powered engines was possibly the strongest catalyst in causing the obsolescence of battery operated automobiles. Although Kettering’s patent was not issued until 1915, gasoline powered vehicle manufacturers started advertising new electric starters during the autumn of 1912, for their upcoming 1913 automobiles. Beautifully illustrated, large advertisements were deliberately positioned in the most prestigious newspapers and magazines and directly challenged the modernity of electric cars.

One of Baker’s most aggressive competitors was Haynes Automobile Company from Kokomo, Indiana. In a September, 1912 advertisement that appeared in Vogue magazine, Elwood Haynes targeted the fashionable women who drove electrics.

He wrote:
“The new electric starting and lighting equipment, now an integral part of every Haynes, removes the only obstacle that has kept a gasoline car from being A Woman’s Car. You could handle the new Model 22 Haynes just as well as any man. The starting crank is done away with. Getting out in the road to lights lamps is done away with. Start and light the car - every time - from the driver’s seat. It is a wonderfully complete automobile.”

Kettering’s electric starter worked so well that it was installed in nearly every gasoline powered automobile by the early 1920s. Popularity increased as these automobiles developed further traveling distances with much faster speeds in comparison to any of the electric pleasure cars. As Henry Ford developed his factory production capabilities, he manufactured 202,667 cars during 1914, all with a starting price of $440. By 1921, Ford offered a $20 electric starter as an option on all his vehicles.

By the mid-1920s, electric cars were considered obsolete and gas powered automobiles had become affordable to the general public. Since then, decades have passed. Today, most people never knew that battery operated cars ever existed a century ago. Even collectors will admit that the old electrics are scarce, now. Yet, that time machine has started to whir again. In a world faced with such great economic and environmental concerns, the development and renewed public interest in battery operated cars does, in fact, appear to be the way of the future.

With special thanks to Librarian, Kevin Parker at The Horseless Carriage Foundation Automotive Research Library, La Mesa, CA. Also Cara Dellatte, archivist, The Staten Island Museum as well as the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI. Appreciation goes to Michael Dominowski, reporter at the Staten Island Advance for his good advice and solid references. Photographs courtesy of The Horseless Carriage Foundation Library, La Mesa, California and digitally enhanced with their permission by Julia Henri.