Try driving one of the oldest electric cars ever built

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This story is taken from The guide.

Electric vehicles have a much longer tradition of automotive culture than we often give them credit for. Ask someone for the first electric vehicle that comes to mind and the usual answers will be from the last two decades: the original Tesla Roadster, possibly in the late 1990s GM EV1, perhaps in rare cases the embarrassing 1970s wedge shape Switch auto. But long before one of these modern electric cars was imagined, there was a battle between electric vehicles and ICE cars that was so fierce that it made today’s market look like a church candy sale.

We know how it turned out: gas stations located on every freeway and thoroughfare across the country from often pitiful and scarce electric charging infrastructures it is proof that gasoline has won the first battles. But it wasn’t for lack of effort or well-built cars.

Columbia Automobile Company went bankrupt four years after releasing the Victoria Phaeton. Photo: Victoria Scott / The Drive

This is a 1908 Victoria Phaeton Columbia Electric. Built by the Columbia Automobile Company, it represents the last days of glory for a brand that was once poised to become an automotive Goliath on par with General Motors, and instead ended its history as a bankrupt footnote just four years after this carriage rolled out of the line assembly.

It’s rolling, proving that there was a vibrant electric vehicle market over a century ago, although it’s more appropriate to call it a horseless electric carriage than a car.

1908 Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton: by the numbers

  • Powertrain: Single electric motor | 48 Volt Lead Acid Battery Series | Rear-wheel Drive
  • Price (when new): $ 1,600 (approximately $ 44,000 in 2021 dollars)
  • Full speed: 15 mph
  • Seats: 2
  • Quick grab: The Columbia, though forgotten, teaches an interesting lesson for the propulsion battles of the future.
Black Nissan Leaf EV next to Victoria Phaeton electric truck in front of a white office building
The Victoria Phaeton offers a pretty impressive ride compared to the modern EV, the Chevy Bolt. Photo: Victoria Scott / The Drive

Sidewalk penthouse

To fully appreciate this machine – and understand how a company it was the first to sell 1,000 cars in a year, neverit has become little more than a niche curiosity: a little background is needed.

At the dawn of the 20th century, there were three options for pushing a carriage other than a horsepower: steam, gasoline, and electricity. Steam was popular for its familiarity. Steam for power generation had been in use for decades at that point, but steam power requires a huge high-pressure boiler (known for its propensity to explode), onboard water storage, or an expensive, high-maintenance condenser, and an immense amount of time to actually run an engine. Starting a steam car could take more than 45 minutes on a cold day.

Believe it or not, gasoline cars weren’t much better in the early 1900s. Before the invention of conveniences like electric starters (patented in 1903 Other first implemented in 1912 by Cadillac) or the muffler (invented in 1899 by Hiram Percy Maxim of Columbia, the same man who invented the first working firearm silencers), gasoline cars were extremely dirty, loud, and difficult to use.

A misfire when starting by hand could easily result in a broken arm or dislocated shoulder, and even when the first internal combustion engines worked perfectly, manual starting required enormous amounts of force and effort to overcome the inertia of enormous pistons and relatively high compression.

Juxtaposed to these two awkward and dangerous propulsion mechanisms, electric cars were very popular. They benefited from the same attributes that made them popular in their recent renaissance: they promised maintenance-free, quiet and clean operation and a completely contained, reliable power source that required very little effort to operate.

Charging, surprisingly, was also simple, with home charging stations available to owners with their own parking spaces or “electric garages” that offered vast charging stations to owners who could not justify their housing unit. In 1900, with 4,192 registered vehicles known on the streets of America, over 1,500 of them were early electric vehicles, compared to less than 1,000 vehicles with internal combustion engines.

And despite this fiercely competitive nascent market—there were over 2,000 companies building automobiles in America from 1900 to 1919 in some form—Columbia was one of the first dominant names. The company originally started when its founder, Albert Pope, turned to automobile production in the early 1890s after making a fortune in bicycle manufacturing after the end of the civil war. When demand for bicycles finally began to evaporate and cars became more common, his company built its first electric vehicle prototype in 1896 and was producing roadworthy consumer models by mid-May 1897.

The accolades followed quickly. In 1900, Columbia set the record for the longest range ever achieved with an electric car, driving 96 miles on a single charge with a first runabout model. By 1902, it had become the first manufacturer to deliver over 1,000 cars in one year, beating Oldsmobile’s sales record.

Not content with simply producing and setting records with electric cars, in 1904, his 30-horsepower gasoline car set the record for a trip from Chicago to New York in a scan 58 hours, 35 minutes-A 13 hour improvement over the previous record, with an average speed of 24 mph.

If the speed wasn’t impressive enough, the folks who chose Columbia were. Teddy Roosevelt became the first president with a motorcade in 1902 and I drove in a Columbia. Queen Victoria also bought a Phaeton carriage for his daughter-in-law, Alexandra of Denmark, to guide yourself in the grounds of his vast manor. At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking Columbia would dominate the American auto industry for decades to come.

Unfortunately, Columbia started running into financial problems as the decade went by, spurred on by mismanagement and an inability to update its models quickly enough for the rapidly changing market. By 1910, the company had fallen into receivership, and by 1913, the holding company under which it had reorganized, the United States Motor Company, a conglomerate intended to take over General Motors, it had collapsed completely. Columbia has never produced another car.

Read what it’s like to be behind the wheel of the Phaeton on The guide.

Correction (November 3, 2021): This story was corrected to note that Columbia set the long-distance driving record with a 30-horsepower, not 300-horsepower car. The caption on the photo has also been updated to note that the modern EV is a Chevy Bolt, not a Nissan Leaf (a modification mistake).

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