Electric Car Manufacturers

Andrew Riker

Andrew Riker’s one-off electric quadricycle, Brooklyn, New York, 1896. Blakely Collection, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History.

Andrew Riker, an electric car enthusiast and experimenter, rose to prominence in the early automobile manufacturing industry. In 1884, when Riker was a teenager, he designed and built a large electric tricycle. Four years later, he established the Riker Electric Motor Company in Brooklyn, New York to manufacture motors and dynamos. His first four-wheel car, which he made in 1895, consisted of two bicycles side by side, connected by hollow tubes and fitted with an electric motor. By 1896, he was racing electric cars, and by the following year, he was making and selling them. Riker had enough faith in the future of electric cars to secure manufacturing space in a large factory in Elizabethport, New Jersey. The Riker Electric Vehicle Company, which he founded in 1899, built and sold more than a dozen types of electric cars and trucks.

Riker Electric Automobile, ca. 1900

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Ad for the Riker Electric Automobile, 1900

Andrew Riker raced a stripped down, lightweight electric car on Coney Island Boulevard in 1901.

Unlike production electric cars, which had wooden, carriage-like bodies and heavy batteries, lightweight, one-off electric cars could achieve considerable bursts of speed over short periods. This type of electric car performed well in early auto races, convincing many people of their viability and technological superiority over gasoline cars and steam cars. In 1896, Andrew Riker won America’s first track race in a small electric car at Narragansett Park near Providence, Rhode Island. Five years later, he covered a one-mile straightaway on New York’s Coney Island Boulevard in a stripped down, battery-powered frame in one minute and three seconds -- a scorching 57.14 miles per hour. In 1900, Riker won a 50-mile road race on Long Island with the only electric entry, averaging almost 25 miles per hour and beating eight cars powered by gasoline or steam.

Walter Baker

Walter Baker's electric race car named the Torpedo, May 30, 1902. Blakely Collection, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History

Walter C. Baker in one of his production electric cars

Another tinkerer who believed in the commercial viability of electric cars was Walter C. Baker, an inventor and mechanical engineer in Cleveland. In 1895, he established a company that made ball bearings for electric motors, streetcars, and bicycles. Within a few years, he began manufacturing automobile parts. In 1897, Baker built an electric car in a shop conveniently located near electrical and mechanical engineering firms that could provide the necessary parts. The following year, he established the Baker Motor Vehicle Company to assemble and sell electric cars made of parts from local suppliers.

High-volume Manufacturers

Pope Manufacturing Company

Columbia high-wheel bicycle, 1886

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Columbia Tandem Bicycle, 1896

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In 1896, Goldwin and Gertrude Goldsmith rode this Columbia tandem bicycle through Europe during their honeymoon.

High-volume vehicle manufacturers like Pope and Studebaker helped to popularize electric cars but made them in smaller quantities than the Columbia bicycles and Studebaker wagons that they also produced. In the late 1890s, the Pope Manufacturing Company became a major player in the new, start-up field of car manufacturing, turning out Columbia electric cars by the hundreds. The oldest and largest manufacturer of bicycles in the United States, Pope dominated the growing consumer market with its Columbia brand of safety bicycles. The company's output undergirded both the popularity of bicycles and the widespread appeal of personal mobility independent of trains and horses. Albert A. Pope, who had founded the company in 1877, succeeded by embracing technological change. His factories in Hartford, Connecticut excelled at producing lightweight tubular steel frames, pneumatic tires, and other bicycle parts in vast quantities. Pope also was adept at influencing the social and political landscape. He was instrumental in promoting bicycle touring, starting the good roads movement, and defining the concept of personal mobility.

Pope Manufacturing Company, exterior, in Hartford, Connecticut, ca. 1898. From trade catalog, Pope Manufacturing Co., "Columbia Bicycles," 1912. Call no. 021543, NMAH Trade Literature Collection.

In the late 1890s, the bike riding fad reached market saturation. Pope astutely used his production capacity and methods to manufacture automobiles, the next personal mobility frontier for his upper-middle class, urban clientele. He applied bicycle technologies and parts designs to automobile chassis and wheels, providing a smooth transition. Pope and his general manager, George H. Day, were firmly committed to electricity as a power source because they believed that demand for electric cars would surpass gasoline and steam cars. Rejecting gasoline engine designs by his own chief engineer, Hiram Percy Maxim, Day remarked, “No one will buy a carriage that has to have all that greasy machinery in it.” Albert Pope said it more succinctly: “You can’t get people to sit over an explosion.”

In 1897, one year after the American car manufacturing industry began, bicycle mogul Albert Pope introduced Columbia electric cars. Blakely Collection, National Museum of American History

Columbia Electric Automobile, 1904

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This buggy-like 1904 Columbia electric runabout has an amazing (for its time) array of electrical components under the wooden floor.

Pope introduced the Columbia electric car in 1897 and built 500 examples in the late 1890s – the largest volume of any automaker at that time -- before selling the car division to a group of New York City transit investors. The reorganized Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) built 2,000 electric taxicabs, but that venture later ended in commercial failure. The EVC survived by manufacturing Columbia electric cars for the consumer market and by purchasing and enforcing George Selden’s infamous 1895 patent, which appeared to exercise monopolistic control over other car manufacturers.

George Selden’s automobile patent model, 1879

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Selden patent plate

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A Selden royalty plate on a car certified that the maker complied with the Selden patent’s apparent monopoly on car manufacturing.

New car sales rose steadily in the early twentieth century, but consumers were buying many more gasoline cars than steam or electric. By 1908, there were more gasoline models than electric models in the Columbia car catalog. By 1912 Columbia electric cars had disappeared, victims of changing consumer preferences and a crowded, volatile manufacturing field.

Carriage Makers: Electric Cars for Wealthy Urbanites

The upscale Waverley was one of electric car pioneer Albert Pope’s later business ventures.

Rauch & Lang Electric Automobile, 1914

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In the 1910s, elegant electric cars with wooden, carriage-like bodies replaced horse-drawn carriages in thousands of urban households.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, upper-middle-class urban Americans joined in the bicycle fad and then purchased cars, which at first were likely to be viewed as expensive “toys.” As more urbanites considered motorizing their personal transportation for practical purposes, many were willing to give up the expense of owning a horse in favor of an automobile if the body could be as comfortable, stylish, and luxurious as an enclosed carriage.

Luxurious interior of the museum’s 1914 Rauch and Lang electric car.

The Rauch and Lang Carriage Company of Cleveland began making carriages in 1884 and added electric cars to its product line in 1905. Like most competitors’ cars, the elegant, carriage-like bodies on Rauch and Lang closed models had fine upholstery, cut glass flower vases, and other refined features to attract affluent Americans who lived in fine, upscale homes. Rauch and Lang cars sold well in many cities. A 1913 newspaper ad claimed that the well-known make had “asserted its premiership as Society’s chosen car.”

About the Blakely Collection

Ned Blakely and Hughie Hughes in the Christie Front Drive Racer, Daytona Beach, 1908.

In 1943, former race car driver Edward B. “Ned” Blakely donated 209 photographs of early production cars, race cars, and the individuals who built them. The Blakely Collection features gasoline, steam, and electric cars and encompasses many prominent experimenters, racers, and industry pioneers.