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Single-charge electric car distance records set, or were they?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

[Editor’s Note: Kerry Segrave’s recently released book, The Electric Car in America, 1890-1922, commences at the dawn of the domestic automobile industry, detailing the early advantages alternative-powered vehicles held over their gas-powered counterparts. Published by McFarland Books, Segrave states that, “There were just some 4,200 automobiles manufactured in the United States in 1900, fewer than 1,000 of which were gasoline-driven.” Many were electric powered, which delivered quiet, efficient and easy operation as promised. The 263-page softcover narrative, accompanied by countless images and newspaper clippings of the era, outlines those early successes of the electric car, and the companies that produced them. Segrave further details the decline of the electric car market, besieged by a steadfast price structure, false claims, the hopes for a new Edison battery that could prolong travel distance (a problem Edison failed to achieve after a decade of trying), and – ironically – the advent of the electric self-starter within gas-powered cars. It’s fascinating reading, included two instances, within mere weeks of each other, in which the electric car market promoted false “records” to the public, which we present here courtesy of McFarland and Segrave.]

For the purpose of showing that the electrics were as fully capable of traversing the average country roads and climbing hills as the “higher powered” gas cars, two electric machines left New York City on a day in September 1910 on a long distance tour of 1,000 miles through New England, under the auspices of the Touring Club of America, according to journalist Harry Ward. Supposedly it was the first ever tour of such magnitude. A Detroit electric and a Bailey electric set off with each having a new Edison storage battery. The tour lasted 12 days with an average of close to 100 miles covered on each day – the longest day’s run was 152 miles.

A little over a month later a news story proclaimed that the longest day’s run for an electric pleasure vehicle on one charge in Southern California – and maybe in the United States – had just been made in a jaunt from Los Angeles to Redlands and back in a Waverley roadster driven by W.A. Evans, who was the California agent for the Waverley company. During the trip the automobile averaged 16 miles per hour but on good streets it reached a top speed of 27 miles an hour. The trip total was 162 miles. So poorly presented was this account that it was admitted in the final sentence, “The run was made on one charge and a ‘boost,’ the car being supplied with a small amount of juice by an electric company in Redlands.”

Emil Gruenfeldt, chief engineer of the Baker Motor Vehicle Company, reportedly drove a Baker electric Victoria 244.5 miles on a single charge on Wednesday, November 9, 1910, breaking all mileage records for electric cars in the process. Total running time was 19 hours and 20 minutes, making the average speed 12.65 miles per hour. Charles G. Steinnauer, automobile editor of the Cleveland Leader, was an observer, following in a separate car. After the trip, Gruenfeldt announced the battery used in the test would have been capable of even more mileage after further use because when he used it in his run it was still “too new” to be in “optimal” shape. That run took place in the Cleveland area. At the bottom of the piece, in bold type and all capitals, readers were asked to “see the Christy Automobile Company, agents, for further information.” That is, it was a press release printed in the newspaper to look like real news. At a time when a decent electric car might provide 50 miles on a single charge under the usual conditions of good roads and level roads, the claim of a machine making 244 miles was surely false.

That story appeared in various newspapers with the same details. One version showed a photo of Gruenfeldt and Edison in a Baker electric. The purpose of such a specious public relations story was clear enough: Gruenfeldt was trying to sell his employer’s machines and Edison was trying to sell his “new” storage battery.