It was an important, innovative year…1912.
Beautiful machines…. Electric cars seemed to be the way of the future.
With well over 30,000 electric cars on the road by 1912, these beautiful automobiles had become increasingly popular. With a simple turn and push of a button or switch, they were easy to start and ran almost entirely without any sound or vibration whatsoever. Considered maintenance free, there were neither odors nor emissions, since they were battery operated. Electric vehicles offered a more peaceful and luxurious way to get from one place to another within a 100 mile range
Out of all the electric car companies that year, Walter C. Baker’s cars were especially exquisite. They had beautifully appointed interiors. They were long-lasting with almost maintenance free construction. They were considered exceptionally safe for women drivers and families. Baker advertised his cars that year as the “aristocratic vehicle.” Elegant. Refined. They were luxuriously priced between two to three thousand dollars.
It is said that electric car sales overall peaked during 1912 and Baker Electric Motor-Vehicle Company was the leading electric car manufacturer in the United States. The commercial illustration was published below) that very year and its caption listed the many 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 for Seattle and other cities throughout the United States.
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 field. As its name suggested, The Road Torpedo was the first truly aerodynamic car design that entirely surrounded its drivers; encapsulating two men, the driver and the electrician or brakeman within its interior. Baker’s Torpedo was the first car to successfully break the 100 mph land speed barrier during test runs along Ormond Beach, Florida. Yet after several attempts…and while claiming to have hit 127 mph…the car crashed when its wheels fell off
Baker returned to his proverbial drafting table and finally went on to test a more powerful version of the Torpedo for racing at Staten Island, where he hoped to officially achieve the land speed record. The world’s fastest cars were set to race against time over a street course laid out by the Automobile Club of America and local aldermen. It was Memorial Day weekend, 1902.
When Baker’s car reached a speed of just over 100 mph, the Torpedo’s wheels caught on the trolley tracks that lay across a section of the otherwise paved road. Baker spun wildly out of control, and the Torpedo flew into the crowd of onlookers who lined the street as if watching a parade. Two people were killed instantly, and many were sent to hospital for serious injuries. This was the first time that spectators were injured during a mooring event….
Although Walter Baker’s speed reached the coveted record that day, the crash disqualified him… in fact, both he and his co-driver were arrested for murder after being extricated from the crash…although the charges were later dropped.
Walter Baker and his co-driver survived these crashes without injury due to the fact that they were belted into their seats. This seemingly simple and sensible idea was actually the very first recorded use of seat belts within automotive history.
Not long after, Walter Baker left racing and focused on motor car design and sales, with extra emphasis on more genteel automobiles marketed to fashionable women drivers.
These exceedingly chic motor cars featured luxurious seating, interior curtains, small vases for flower arrangements and demure built-in make-up vanities. The stylish cars traveled about 100 miles before requiring a charge and drove along at a more socially acceptable speed of about 25 mph.
Entirely battery-operated and connected to charging stations between use, Baker’s electric cars started with a simple turn and push of a switch and a button.
This was quite unlike gasoline operated motor vehicles in comparison. Several hard, strong turns on heavy cranks were usually required to get the gas automobile going, and for safety reasons, cranking was done with the left arm. One also needed accurate knowledge of just how to adjust a choke…and if the car backfired, the crank would swing fast, hard and unexpectedly in the opposite direction. This often resulted in serious injuries, and the most common were broken hands, arms or dislocated shoulders. Therefore, the elegant electric starters on battery operated cars were huge selling factors for Baker’s company, as well as for his competitors.
Because of the ornate, elaborate fashions worn by women at the time, electric cars were the obvious and the sensible choice for women who drove. Baker realized this and his marketing strategies in advertising and promotions were centered on a more feminine approach. Therefore, today we find ample electric automobile advertising, and related motoring sports articles, in women’s fashion magazines.
Yet, by the time the above 1912 advertisement appeared in Vogue magazine’s early autumn millinery issue, Baker’s electric cars were also marketed with professional men in mind. The ad states that Baker cars fit well for town and professional uses of men as for the social uses of women.
These marketing changes were a little too late for Baker’s electric vehicles. Only a page or two away and in nearly every other fashionable magazine that September, gasoline powered vehicle makers were advertising electric starters for their new 1913 automobile models. Electric starters had just been invented and were being mass produced by Charles Kettering at his Dayton Electric Company in Ohio. By the end of 1912, electric starters were being implemented on gasoline engines throughout the automotive industry.
One of Baker’s most aggressive competitors was Haynes Automobile Company from Kokomo, Indiana. In their advertising published only a few pages away from the Baker’s Electrics ad, they announced:
“The new electric starting and electric lighting equipment, now an integral part of every Haynes, removes the only obstacle that has kept the 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 light lamps is done away with. Start the car – every time– and light car, right from the driver’s seat. It is a wonderfully complete automobile.” – Haynes
By the end of 1913, nearly every gasoline powered automotive company was advertising some type of electrical starter and Walter Baker’s company was faced with a rapid downward spiral in fully electric auto sales.
Gasoline automobiles could travel further distances and at faster speeds than Baker’s original designs, such as those advertised in the autumn 1912 magazines. Most gasoline auto makers converted immediately to the newly invented electric starters and even the lesser priced cars were soon advertising some type of electrical controls. The Overland Roadster, priced at $675 during March of 1916, advertised that the electrical control-box on the steering-column is operated by buttons instead of switches.
Within slightly over a year from the time the Baker’s Electrics 1912 advertisement was published in Vogue magazine, Henry Ford improved automotive line production capabilities and a new car could be made every 93 minutes. Soon, Baker’s downward spiral turned into a kind of black hole for electric cars overall.
By 1916, Walter Baker stopped electric car production entirely. Although he worked within the automotive industry for much of his remaining life, he eventually retired; a wealthy man. He lived in Cleveland, Ohio until his death during 1955…living long enough to witness the progress of gasoline motorized vehicles and the total demise of the electric car….
Yet today the time machine still whirs. In a world faced with such great economic and environmental concerns, the demand and technologies for electric cars have returned….
Original text & photographs ©2015 Julia Henri
Please use citations and references to The Gilded Times.