Are Electric Cars Coming Back?


New developments, taking advantage of the old-fashioned electric's renowned reliability and economical operation, may bring about a revival of an automotive museum piece.

One evening last August Jack Paar's television audience heard him stray into the subject of back-to-yesterday trends in automobiles - less horsepower, shorter wheel base... "Maybe electrics will come back," he said dreamily. "Remember the old square jobs, with the flower in the little vase?"

Production of "the old square jobs" ceased thirty years ago, and no one expects their return. Like the Stanley Steamer, they lost out to the gasoline engine. The steamers are gone for good, but electrics are coming back, in a variety of forms. With stream lined bodies and updated innards, new electric trucks and passenger cars are rolling now in Atlantic City, Lansing, Detroit, Cleveland and Spokane, and in several towns in France and England.

So far, all the electrics are being manufactured by small firms in small quantities. The big automobile companies, armed with research data on every imaginable power source - solar, atomic, gas turbine, you name it - still prefer the internal-combustion engine. But battery manufacturers and electric-power companies, eager to expand sales, are taking this projected revival seriously.

Most of the experimental electrics are good-looking on the outside, pretty crude inside. I have driven two experimental models. They were silent, of course, and they handled well. My wife tried them too - and got an I'd-like-one look in her eye. If we lived in a city or suburb, instead of far out in the country, she'd have a case. Trouble is, these cars run only eighty miles or so on a fresh battery charge, so they won't do for long trips. But for in-town use by a two-car family they are unbeatable on several counts.

Fifty-odd years ago, Thomas A. Edison thought electricity better than gasoline for powering automobiles, and he wasn't entirely wrong. Electrics have never become quite extinct. Some of the vintage electric trucks which are still in use were built before World War I. In fact, the durability of the old-timers is one reason why enthusiasts predict a comeback.

The year 1930 saw the end of manufacture of the ladies' electrics of Jack Paar's memories - decorously silent, glittering with plate glass, costing thousands in a day when dollars were way uptown, they were finally smothered when emergence of the self-starter made gas cars practical for women drivers. But Miss May C. Quinby of East Cleveland, Ohio, still glides elegantly round in her 1918 Rauch-Lang electric. Years ago, when she tried driving a conventional car, she felt "like a cat in a strange attic."

I just wish there were more electrics on the streets," she says, "so mine wouldn't be so stared at."

Mrs. Ernest I. Lloyd of Ann Arbor, Michigan, still uses a Rauch-Lang that she acquired in 1914. It recharges at a wall outlet in her garage. The batteries cost $700 to replace, but they last six years or so. Jacob de Korse, retired tool-and-die maker of Detroit, yearned for an electric as a boy, but his family never bought one. Now he owns three. His 1906 Waverly and 1915 Milburn are kept as pets, but his 1922 Detroit Electric is in regular use as a cheap-to-run second car. Museums cherish some surviving electrics. Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, has a dozen and uses one of them to take VIP's round in archaic style.

The significance of these grand old buggies is economic as well nostalgic. Since their time, the price of electricity has gone down by two-thirds, while the cost of gasoline, with taxes, has almost tripled. In 1955, Harold L. Phillips of Hastings, Michigan, an antique-car fan, found an electric in good-enough shape to be his wife's Christmas present. Never did Santa Claus make a better deal. The vehicle is in steady second-car use, and recharging the batteries of this Christmas gift costs only two dollars a month, about the price of seven gallons of regular gas. It needs no antifreeze and in winter it starts instantly at temperatures that make gas cars sulky. And thanks to smoother application of power to the drive wheels, it behaves better under slick-surface conditions.

The old-timers seldom reached a speed of thirty miles per hour, and eighty miles per recharge was their best range. But consider what Robert Craig of Scotland, Pennsylvania, gets from his 1920 Detroit Electric, bought during World War II to save strain on his gas ration. Now run as a second car, with modern heavy-duty batteries, the old electric gets well over 100 miles per recharge, makes thirty-five m.p.h. on level blacktop and takes all the grades in his up-and-down neighbourhood. Recharging nuisance? A modern recharger plugged into an ordinary electrical outlet handles that problem overnight, automatically cutting off the juice at the right point.

An amateur orchid grower, Mr. Craig puts a fresh spray of orchids in the traditional flower holder every day. But he has trouble keeping the old girl well polished. After an hour's parking in nearby Chambersburg, it is usually covered with the handprints of inquisitive people who have never seen such a rig before. Once Mrs. Craig found a man on his back underneath the car, only his legs visible.

"What on earth are you doing down there?" she asked the legs.

A red-faced head appeared. "Trying to find out what makes it go, ma'am."

Old-timers fit for rehabilitation are hard to find, hence seldom seen in traffic. More conspicuous examples of applying electricity to steered vehicles are the battery-driven golf carts, designed for players with heart ailments and now leaving the fairways to invade the streets. In good-weather areas favored by retired oldsters, such as Florida and Southern California, many "senior citizens" and some junior ones find these little go-buggies handy for shopping, visiting and going to a movie.

The golf-cart prototypes are often modified with canopies, dashboards, steering wheels instead of tillers, and greater carrying room. In effect, they become two-seater electric automobiles, costing several hundred dollars less than small European gas cars. In Long Beach, California, for instance, more than 4000 of these electric vehicles present grave problems in licensing and sidewalk congestion - and give ingenious people ideas.

An engineer named H. Drake Harkins retired not long ago and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, planning to take it easy. The place was swarming with golf carts being used for anything but golf. Mr. Harkins, whose background includes auto dealerships, contemplated them thoughtfully and wrote to people he knew up Norht. For more than a year now he has been busy developing the electric-automobile idea under the auspices of the Atlantic City Electric Company, of which he is a director.

Atlantic City Electric's program has also included a study of electric trucks in England, where close to 30,000 of them are making many-stop deliveries of milk, bakery goods, laundry, sacked coal, and so on. The electric's quicker handling and acceleration, English studies show, enable it to cover go-stop-go routes at higher average speed than gas trucks or horse-carts. Besides, they don't waste gas idling during the delivery stop. "Stop an electric, and it stops all over," says Mr. Harkins with relish.

Some companies, realizing these virtues, have never abandoned electrics. The United Parcel Service still runs seventy of them as "little warehouses on wheels" out of its mid-Manhattan loading depot, whence routes are short, and stops at apartment houses long. U.P.S.'s indoor, underground loading docks make the absence of exhaust fumes particularly desirable. The Brunswick Laundry of Jersey City keeps delivery costs down with twenty-eight electrics on runs of less than thrity-five miles a day. Some are still rolling with the same electric motors, although frequently reconditioned, after forty-eight years of service.

A revival of electric-truck manufacturing is already under way. Light experimental models, fathered by the Gould-National Batteries, Inc., have been added to the Brunswick Laundry fleet and are doing well for the Blanding Milk Company of Greenville, Michigan. Since February, 1959, Westinghouse Electric has run a natty Gould-National truck out of its East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, plant up and down the hilly local streets on short-range errands previously assigned to station wagons. Oscar Bickel, the driver, likes its easy handling so much that he is building himself an electric car out of an old Crosley chassis, a salvaged Crosley station-wagon body and a motor from a warehouse-type electric tractor. Westinghouse engineers have privately suggested some of the ideas he has adopted.

The Warren Sanitary Dairy Company of Warren, Ohio, is keen on its new electric delivery truck from the Cleveland Vehicle Company, designed to handle a fifty-mile route with 200 pay stops. On its usual up-to-twenty-mile route its "fuel" - recharge electricity - costs a cent and a half per mile. Cleveland Vehicle already has thirty-seven of its trucks on daily delivery chores, mostly in Ohio. The United States Post Office is testing one for pick-up work in Maryland.

The Electric Storage Battery Company, Detroit Edison and Atlantic City Electric are among big brothers solicitously aiding and abetting Cleveland Vehicle. Its head, Walter S. Thomas, is an engineer who has loved electric vehicles since he was a youngster. He owns and cherishes an old Rauch-Lang with a wrap-around windshield and sometimes takes her out for a run. Naturally he has entered Cleveland Vehicle in the race to produce the electric passenger car of - maybe tomorrow morning.

In June, 1958, he installed an electric motor and a bank of batteries in a Rambler American supplied him by American Motors. Then he went cruising on Cleveland streets - to the mystification of other drivers, who thought the silent car was stalling every time it stopped for a light, and yet heard no starter noise before it took off again. Policemen, sometimes stopped him to ask what made it run. Once, as a joke, Mr. Thomas drove into a gas station and asked for a tankful, saying he had just managed to coast up to the pump. After frustrated fumbling, the proprietor asked in outrage, "You just get this car new?" Mr. Thomas replied he had. "They didn't give you any gas tank!"

"No wonder I ran out," said Mr. Thomas shaggily. He stepped on the control pedal and drove silently away without benefit of internal combustion.

From this makeshift vehicle he learned an important fact about electric cars - you can't rip engine and gas tank out of a heavy, Detroit-sized car, substituting batteries and electric motor, and expect dazzling performance. Instead of a more-than-100-horsepower engine, you have one or two electric motors delivering four to sixteen horsepower at best. So the new electric must be as small as a foreign economy car and specially engineered for lightness - glass and plastic get the call as body materials. And then you settle for speed and range comparable to Mr. Craig's old-timer - say forty miles per hour top speed, and ninety to 100 miles' range per recharge.

It sounds puny until you recall the practical use that owners of old electrics get from their elegant pets. An electric is the ideal economical urban-suburban family second car for shopping, child-fetching, going to a nearby job. It costs far less per mile to operate than the average standard-sized gas car, is better suited to urban traffic than some European models and has quicker acceleration. Since anything over thirty-five miles an hour is pointless as well as illegal on city streets, its forty m.p.h speed is adequate. Seven different companies are known to be cooking up electric automobiles, and all are committed to this second-car market - a limited field, but nevertheless taking in millions of potential customers.

The problems have been to develop controls smoother than those acceptable in electric trucks and to get enough power output in proportion to the weight and life of the dozen or so batteries an electric car needs. For their vehicles Europeans have a high opinion of alkaline-type storage batteries that team up nickel and iron or nickel and cadmium or silver and zinc. This side of the ocean, alkaline batteries so far have been largely confined to military use. But as refinements appear and production rises and costs fall, one or more of these metallic teams may pay off in an electric. In the meantime, recent improvements in the conventional lead-acid storage battery enable it to satisfy more than key requirements for an electric of reasonable lightness - forty-mile-an-hour speed, 100 mile range.

Body and frame problems are being bypassed by C. Russell Feldmann, a pioneer in automobile radios and enthusiastic operator of five de luxe golf carts on his Connecticut estate. He has arranged to import unitized Renault assemblies from France, to be electrified in a bus-manufacturing plant in Canastota, New York. Carrying some 640 pounds of the latest lead-acid batteries, the car will reach thirty-five to forty-m.p.h. speeds.

B.L. England, board chairman of Atlantic City Electric, has ordered the first two Feldmann cars turned out. As to range, Mr. England says he would settle for thirty-five to forty miles per recharge, in order to get the cars on day-by-day testing as soon as possible. Actually these electrified Renaults are expected to go much farther.

So far, Mr. Feldmann has orders for fifty-one cars from thirty power companies. In the foreseeable future, his whole output will go to utilities yearning to get them into street use by meter readers, collectors and other many-stop employees. Painted so as to identify them as electrics, they will also advertise the electric-vehicle idea to private motorists, who, the electric industry hopes, will eventually go for it.

This fervency is understandable. Atlantic City Electric figures that, on the average, each electric car with batteries being recharged at night will use fifty dollars' worth of juice a year. And most of the current - this is the creamy part - will be drawn at off-peak hours after midnight, which means far more efficient use of generating equipment. No wonder the mere hint of an electric car in the works brings eager inquiries from utility companies. The Washington Water Power Company has ordered electric-to-be from the Nic-L-Silver Battery Company of Santa Ana, California; another power company is anonymously encouraging Electricar Manufacturing Company of Freeport, Long Island, in its electric-car project.

Contemplated cost to private owners varies according to who is talking. Cleveland Vehicle and Electricar have set their sights on the $1600 range, to meet the competition of small European gas jobs. Stephen P. Kish of NuKlean Corporation, Lansing, Michigan, whose plastic-bodied entry will carry a motor at each rear wheel to make differential gears unnecessary, has the $2500 range in mind as a starter. Utilizing long experience as an engineer of Detroit car-body models, he hopes to allow for changes in body styles by selling owners inexpensive plastic shells for the never-wear-out basic car.

Actually data from operation of electric trucks suggest that an electric second car at $2500 would be a good investment. Annual depreciation can be based on twenty years of vehicle life; many electric trucks are twice that old. The cost of replacing battteries is offset by the extraordinary cheapness of electric "fuel". Tires last longer because of smoother acceleration. Maintenance is almost nil.

"This job will have eight moving parts," says Claud R. Erickson, mechanical engineer for the Lansing Board of Water and Light, an eager ally of Mr. Kish's project, "and four of them are wheels."

Most of these engineer enthusiasts are professionals, but they show the zeal of amateurs. Most are already well fixed, with good jobs, or with adequate retirement income, lik R.L.R. Brown, a retired English engineer whose prototype electric runabout is spinning through the Surrey countryside.

Douglas Dow, who has long had a basic electric car running around Detroit, was formerly with Detroit Edison, now with Detroit Testing Laboratory. Seymour Lederer of Electricar is a retired colonel of United States Army Engineers. His engineer colleague, John Christian Schuld, retired last year with all the money he'd ever need. He intended to loaf. Then he heard of Electricar and within three months was working seven days a week.

"I don't care if I'm paid or not," he says. "I'm having fun."

Schuld expects that Electricar, utilizing modern batteries and structural know-how gained in making de luxe golf carts, will have by late spring a prototype combining fifty-m.p.h. speed and 100-mile range. Capt. C.G. Grimes, USN (ert.), head of Electric Storage Battery's Carl F. Norberg Research Center at Yardley Pennsylvania, is confident that today's batteries and motors are up to such performance.

As the subject heats up, ideas keep popping out: Why not put electric chargers on parking meters, an extra dime giving a parked car ten miles of recharge while it waits? Why not design the motor to become a generator going downgrade, recharging the battery and helping to brake the car? Charles P. Steinmetz, the electrical wizard, had that worked out in 1913. Robert Sewell, an engineering student at the University of Idaho last year, now with Washington Water Power, has applied this idea to an electrified Crosley station wagon.

Some owners of taxi fleets hope for low-maintenance, long-lived electric cabs - another new-old notion. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was the first fare in London's first electric taxi in 1897. By 1900 New York City had hundreds of them. Quick battery replacement - slide out a pallet containing the old batteries, slide in a pallet of fresh-charged replacements - is simple to design. With this arrangement electric cabs could work the usual two shifts, with half an hour in the grage for changing batteries. Gasoline taxis might do better on fifty-mile round trips to airports via freeways, but forty-m.p.h., 100-mile electrics could handle most fares in urban traffic at average speeds.

American Motors and the Sonotone Corporation are developing an electric vehicle with nickel-cadmium batteries kept at full charge by a small, constant-speed gasoline engine running a generator. This is a clever design, but it cancels one of the electric's virtues - its lack of gasoline fumes and exhaust gases. Many American cities would have less smog trouble if taxis, delivery trucks and a sizable proportion of private automobiles were electric.

Reacting to outcries about pollution, Detroit will soon put new gadgets to work on automobile fumes. By late 1961, the motor industry promises, new cars will carry some type of "afterburner" to clean up exhaust gases between engine and tailpipe. Even sooner, cars intended for sale in California, where smog is a chronic problem, will probably have a device to channel unburned gasoline fumes from the crankcase into the intake manifold. But these innovations inevitably add to the cost of the car, and nobody yet knows how much they will thin out air pollution.

The electric has its own shortcomings. The heater, if one is installed, will have to be a gas burner - to save current. Extremely cold weather will reduce the batteries' output and thus cut the cruising range. Other things being equal, electrics will sell better in St. Augustine than in St. Paul. They will pull any grad ever paved, but the steeper the slower; obviously they will sell better in flat San Antonio than in hilly San Francisco. But in most of the nation, says the true believer, the electric as second car is bound to win favor.

The true believer hankers, of course, to get the electric out of the second-car class. He talks of gasoline-car rental depots at city limits, where city dwellers owning short-range electrics can change cars for long trips. He cheers the suggestion of the late Dean George Granger Brown of the University of Michigan's engineering school - that electrics qualify for expressways by taking power from overhead trolley wires, switching over to storage-battery power when leaving the expressway for secondary roads.

Certainly speed and electric propulsion are not inconsistent. One of the first cars to exceed 100 m.p.h. was Walter Baker's electric Torpedo in 1905. Its little brother, a streamlined job called the Torpedo Kid, hit 104 m.p.h. Electric Storage Battery's Captain Grimes talks expressway-style performance - sixty-five to seventy m.p.h., 500-mile range - for electrics without trolleys. The power source he has in mind is not the storage battery but the "fuel cell" - a device producing electricity directly out of certain fuels, far more efficiently than the indirect methods of running generators with steam plants or diesel engines.

In its simplest form, a fuel cell sets oxygen to "burning" hydrogen, a process that gives off energy and combines the two elements into water. Such "burning" of hydrogen by oxygen usually means a violent explosion, but the fuel cell tames this reaction by interlocking arrangements of metal diaphragms tied in with electrodes. The energy released turns directly into usable electric current. The principle has been known for generation, but only recently have scientists worked out the finicky details necssary for practical application.

The fuel cell's efficiency is amazing. The best-designed electric-power plant burning oil or coal to make steam to run a generator, cannot transform into electricity more than 40 per cent of the potential energy in the fuel used. Internal combustion engines are even less efficient. But fuel cells are getting colse to 80 per cent under laboratory conditions and will soon do better. To translate even half that advantage into economic use would revolutionize power supply.

Most fuel cells now in operation are strung out as layman-puzzling complexes of wires, tanks, tubes and valves. Essentially, however, a fuel cell can be thogut of as a box, like a storage battery, packed with porous metal plates associated with other metals acting as catalysts. At one end of the box, compressed tank oxygen feeds in steadily; at the other, hydrogen. As the two gases - hydrogen and oxygen - approach each other through mazes of porous plates, they are catalyzed into joining in a continuous low-temperature "burning," flameless and nonexplosive. The energy thus released is side-tracked into expressing itself as current, led off ty the electrodes. The waste product is just everyday distilled water.

A conventional storage battery works the same way - up to a point. It, too, contains chemicals and metal plates so arranged that newly released oxygen "burns" lead as fuel, which frees energy as electricity. But the process must stop - meaning the battery has "run down" - when exhaustion of available oxygen and formation of new chemicals make the battery's contents useless.

Recharging runs outside electric durrent through these new chemicals to re-organize them into their original combinations. But recharging involves delay and is slightly less effective each time, until the battery finally wears out. Recent improvements have greatly postponed that evil day. Moden lead-acid batteries powering electric trucks and experimental automobiles can stand upward of 2000 recharge cycles. But they lack the advantage of the fuel cell's steady supply of fresh fuel and oxygen, which enables it just to sit there ans sweat usable electricity without ever running down.

Handling hydrogen and oxygen in high-pressure tanks can be awkward. One answer is to use hydrides - chemicals giving off oxygen when damp - and free oxygen from the air, provided the problem of air impurities is solved.

Hydrogen is by no means the only fuel potentially available. Researchers work with carbon monoxide and with wood alcohol and hydrocarbons derived from oil. With any fuel, experimenters must get just the right subtle modifications of diaphragms and electrodes. With all fuels except hydrogen, operating heat presents problems ranging from troublesome to very tough, and keeping waste residues from clogging the works is a constant headache.

Those technical challenges are now the concern of a whole mob scene of European as well as American scientits. Most of them aim for usable electricity, but some are studying fuel cells to learn things valuable in other industrial fields. The list of American companies already at work includes Union Carbide, Curtiss-Wright, Lockheed, Radio Corporation of America, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Gulf Oil, Koppers, Consolidation Coal, Chrysler, Electric Storage Battery, Allis-Chalmers and Universal Winding.

So far a fork lift and a farm tractor have been run by fuel-cell power, albeit needing highly cumbrous and complex controls. Estimates of when practical use will come to pass range, as usual, from "next year" to "never." The first such use will certainly be military, to supply power at remote bases and possibly in satellites. The British are pointing for fuel-cell-power locomotives. Continental researchers lean toward multiple hook-ups of fuel-cells to generate industrial power.

Cheap power thus obtained would in itself stimulate development of electric vehicles. Captain Grimes of Electric Storage Battery expects to see within three years a prototype of a high-speed, long-range, fuel-cell-powered electric car. Union Carbide researchers recently showed me an operating hydride-oxygen fuel-cell layout small and light enough to carry in a suitcase, and putting out enough current to light a couple of small headlights. They consider it now in good enough shape to justify telling their engineer colleagues, "Her it is. It works - all ready for you to adapt it to useful jobs."

Many other experts think this view of the matter is wildly optimistic. But Captain Grimes says that research into fuel cells has incidentally shown the way to making conventional storage batteries stronger, lighter and longer-lived. Fuel cells, better batteries - either way, the electric car will benefit.

This article was published in the Saturday Evening Post, March 12, 1960. The article is accompanied by several pictures. The photos are not reproduced here as my source document is a poor photocopy of the original magazine article and did not scan well.

1) A photo of woman exiting from a car of early 1900's vintage, with three other women seated inside it. The caption for the photo reads, "Hastings, Mich.: This is the 1915 Milburn electric with Mrs. Harold L. Phillips (far side, rear seat) got as a Christmas present from her husband five years ago. Keeping its batteries charged costs only $2 a month."

2) A photo of three men looking into the "engine compartment" of a Rambler. The caption reads, "Walter S. Thomas, head of the Cleveland Vehicle Company, likes to startle service-station attendants by driving up in his battery-powered Ramber.

3) A photo of two men looking at batteries in back of a van. The caption reads, "Thomas and engineer Richard Dunker inspecting the battery compartment of a pilot-model electric truck designed for milk delivery."

4) A photo of three men in a golf-cart. The caption reads, "TV's Tennessee Ernie Ford, at tiller, with comedian George Gobel (rear) and singer Curt Massey in an electric golf cart at Burbank, Calif."

5) A photo of a city sidewalk/street scene with three enclosed, three-wheeler carts of three different designs, parked. The caption reads, "In Long Beach, Calif., the streets and sidewalks swarm with more than 4000 electric go-buggies. These elaborate versions of the golf cart are said to be ideal for errands.

6) A large photo shows a vintage electric car on a three-lane roadway (one lane in each direction plus a centre passing lane.) The caption reads, "Mrs. Rober Craig of Scotland, Pa., off on a shopping trip in her 1920 Detroit Electric. She gets over 100 miles per recharge at speeds up to 35 m.p.h.

7) A photo showing a woman putting a flower into the vase attached to a vintage vehicle with a man looking on. The caption reads, "Every day Mr. and Mrs. Robert Craig of Scotland, Pa., faithfully put a fresh orchid in the flower vase of their 1920 Detroit Electric."

8) A photo of a vintage vehicle. The caption reads, "Until she gave up driving last year, Mrs. Ernest Lloyd, 88, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, had used this Rauch-Lang continually since 1914."

Darryl McMahon comments on this article in 1997:

37 years later, it is remarkable how little has changed in the world of automobiles, except there are so many more of them, and the pollution caused is now so much worse. Lead-acid batteries are still the staple storage-system for electric vehicles, fuel-cells are still in the research stage, despite having gone to the moon and back. Several small companies still produce small volumes of electric vehicles for niche markets, though none of those mentioned in the article are still around. The Bombardier NEV and Trans-2 look like the successors to the California and Florida go-buggies of the late 1950's and early 1960's. Most modern,lead-acid powered conversions do well to get 100 miles on a charge, just matching the reported performance of the 1920 Detroit Electric, 77 years later. Gasoline is still cheap to buy and costly to use, but those using it don't pay directly pay the costs of pollution and adverse health effects and reduced life-expectancy. The mind-set of the average citizen has not changed, it is still essentially "pollution is a problem, but there is nothing I can do about it, and my car doesn't cause that much pollution, so I will just ignore it and expect someone else to solve the problem."

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