Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth
The theme of this year’s SAE World Congress was “Charging Forward Together”. In case you haven’t noticed the electrification of the automobile industry, to make the phrase even more obvious the logo includes an electric plug. Keeping with that theme the automotive engineers’ professional association put a couple of early electric cars on display, a 1915 Detroit Electric and a 1903 Columbus Electric.
This is not the first time gasoline and diesel’s primacy as a transportation fuel was challenged. In the horseless carriage days, internal combustion, steam and electricity vied almost equally for early motorists’ cash. Each had its advocates, each had its detractors. Gasoline powered cars were difficult to start. The upper body strength needed to hand crank a gasoline engine meant many women could not drive on their own. In 1903, gasoline engines were not particularly refined, nor reliable. They were noisy, smelly and leaked oil. You had to adjust settings just to get the car to start and then to run, as well as operate the steering, brakes and transmission.
In 1903 the Columbus Buggy Co. of Columbus, Ohio, perhaps recognizing the end of the horse age, started to make automobiles and put its money on electric power. Electric cars were much easier to start and operate than gasoline cars., and at that point in time, electrical technology was probably more advanced and more reliable than internal combustion engines. The controls on electric cars were much simpler, they were quiet and with only few moving parts compared to a gas motor, they were reliable. The only drawback to electric cars was range. A century later little has changed.
The 1903 Columbus Electric could keep up in whatever traffic there was at the turn of the 20th century, with a top speed of 21 mile per hour and a range of 72 miles per charge. I haven’t been able to find out how long it took to recharge them, but they came equipped with Excide lead-acid batteries so the didn’t recharge quickly. Then as now, EV manufacturers highlighted their strong points, Columbus advertisements would tout “The Car Supreme” as “Noiseless Clean Simple and Odorless”. In a manner reminiscent of how the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are being marketed, the Columbus Electric was being marketed as using technology appropriate for the many short trips that people take. A century before urban EVs started reappearing, the Columbus Electric was promoted as a true “town car” to distinguish it from the more powerful “touring cars” suitable for long distance driving. Back then those terms actually meant something and weren’t just trim packages.
Simplicity of operation was a major selling point, and the Columbus Electric apparently made things even simpler. There was a tiller to steer and a single lever that controlled speed and apparently some kind of electrical or mechanical brakes. There were no foot pedals. Moving the lever forward sequentially connected more batteries in series. The motor was connected to the solid rear axle via two chain drives, so I assume there was some kind of differential mechanism.
It appears that the primary market for early electrics was women. Columbus ads were specifically targeted at women. One ad pictures a woman at the tiller and describes the EV as a car “you can drive yourself”. Another ad mentions a “well dressed” woman’s distress at the thought of having to take the street car home from the theater. A third describes the Columbus Electric as “the town car for all the family” and says that it will “give all the service a man can ask, yet it is so simply constructed, so easily controlled, that a woman or even a child can run it safely.”
Both Clara Ford and Helen Newberry Joy, the wives of the men who ran Ford Motor Co. and Packard Motor Cars, owned and drove Detroit Electrics.
When I first started researching the EVs on display at the SAE congress I though the Detroit Electric would be more interesting, since it was the most successful early electric. By 1915, though, electric car sales had already peaked and had started declining as gasoline cars got more reliable. The Columbus Buggy Company was no longer in business making electric cars. That year Charles Kettering was granted a patent on the electric self starter, removing that particular barrier to women driving gasoline powered cars. Women eventually saw the noise and smell as the price to pay for power and range.
It turns out, though, that Columbus Electric car had a seminal role in the development on the automobile industry in that its manufacturer employed two people who themselves would later have important roles in car history, Eddie Rickenbacker and Harvey Firestone.
The founder of Columbus Buggy was Clinton D. Firestone. He hired a young relative, Harvey, after the younger Firestone graduated from high school. A few years later, in 1890, Harvey Firestone would start the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company to supply the buggy industry. This was the height of the buggy industry and Columbus was one of the centers of that industry, along with Flint, Michigan. It’s interesting that while “buggy whip manufacturer” is a term for an industry that doesn’t recognize that it was being made obsolete, many in the buggy and carriage industries sensed the winds of change. Billy Durant in Flint and Harvey Firestone in Ohio were not the only men in the carriage trade who avoided becoming “buggy whip manufacturers”.
Rickenbacker had a storybook life with many acts. He was born and raised in Columbus and would go on to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor as an ace flying in World War One, own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for two decades and found Eastern Airlines. He also launched the Rickenbacker Motor Company, with automotive veterans Byron F. Everitt, Harry Cunningham and Walter Flanders. Rickenbacker cars pioneered four wheel brakes. If that wasn’t enough, before the war he was a famous test driver, race car driver and mechanic. Rickenbacker went to work at a young age when his father died. After stints working for a railroad and an automotive repair garage and finding that he had an aptitude for cars, Rickenbacker took a correspondence course in mechanical engineering. That eventually led to a job in 1907 as a test driver and mechanic with the Columbus Buggy Company. As mentioned, electrics’ potential had not born fruit. Columbus had hedged their bets, producing cars with both electric and gasoline power by the end of the decade. Eddie entered his first race in 1910, while working as the company’s midwest sales manager. Gaining experience, Rickenbacker entered a factory backed stripped down Firestone-Columbus in the 1912 Indy 500, though he left the Columbus company later that year to become a professional driver. It’s not clear if the company’s financial situation was a factor, but it did go out of business the following year in 1913. Rickenbacker’s talent was noticed by the Duesenberg brothers and he raced for them in the 1914 Indy 500, finishing 10th, his best finish out of four starts. His association with Columbus Buggy Co. would become just a footnote in a magnificently illustrious life, just as much as the Columbus Electric has become a relative footnote in automotive history. Concerning footnotes, you must remember that even footnotes are obviously worthy of note.
Here’s video of Eddie Rickenbacker exhibition racing a Duesenberg against a barnstorming pilot around an oval track.