All the current interest in hybrids and other vehicles with some sort of alternative powertrain is kind of amusing to me. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm all for pursuing other ways to power cars. (Click here to visit Jay's Green Garage!) But I smile because I've owned three alternative energy cars for years. The newest was built in 1925; the oldest, 1909. Each one is a rolling manifestation of a brilliant idea. Sadly, they were all way ahead of their time and all three makes failed.
My Baker Electric dates back nearly 100 years — and it's a late model. By then, the company had been selling electrics for more than a decade. Unlike other early cars, the Baker Electric needed no cranking, had no gasoline smell and was essentially maintenance-free. Not surprisingly, it was marketed to women. The interior of my Baker is rather froufrou, complete with a little makeup kit. Even though it's almost a century old, the car drives totally silently — like any modern electric vehicle. In fact, when I take it up into the hills, I have to be extra careful of deer. They usually just stand there and look in the windows, which makes the Baker my wife Mavis's favorite car.
I also own what can be conÂsidered an ancestor of today's hybrids, an Owen Magnetic. First seen at the auto show in New York City in 1915 — just about the time that Baker Electric gave it up — the Owen Magnetic has a gas engine and an electric generator.
This drivetrain was the brainchild of George Westinghouse. The engine powers the generator, which creates a large magnetic force field be-tween the engine and drivewheels. There's no mechanical transmission. The driver moves a rheostat through four quadrants — a lot easier than shifting, and grinding, the straight-cut gears of the day — and the car moves ahead progressively, giving occupants that odd feeling you get when you try to push similar-pole magnets against each other. Both Enrico Caruso and John McCormack drove Owen Magnetics.
Owens were expensive and really sophisticated. They had an advanced, 24-volt electrical system when most cars had only 6 volts. And Owen Magnetics had a black box called "the brain." There's a big warning label right on it that reads, "Do not attempt to fix this or alter it. Only the factory can do this." Of course, the factories were located in Cleveland and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. That was a big help. And so the Owen Magnetic failed in 1921.
My newest alternative fuel car is a 1925 Doble steamer. When it was built, it seemed that Abner Doble had solved all the problems that plagued steam cars of the day. Before the Doble, you had to be part engineer, part plumber to drive a steamer. First, the boiler had to be lit off with a blowtorch; then it took time — and more time — for the steam to build up enough pressure to do anything.
When he was only 19, Doble surprised the Stanley brothers, of Stanley Steamer fame, by inventing a modern condenser for his first steam car. The car uses 525 ft. of steel coil (the height of a 50-story office building) and one spark plug. Turn the key and an electric motor forces air up through a venturi, then through a carburetor, which throws gasoline in the middle of the huge coil, and the spark ignites it. The real genius is that in the bottom of the boiler there's a metal tray with a row of quartz rods. As heat increases, the tray expands, pushing the rods forward and shutting off the burner. As everything cools, the quartz rods contract and the burner cycles on again. It's dead reliable. Thanks to the Doble's astronomical torque, something like 1000 lb.-ft., there's no need for a clutch or transmission, and the car can go nearly 100 mph. And — get this — my Doble even meets today's emissions standards. Because it's a closed system, with 2 million BTU, combustion is complete: It burns everything.
Dealing with the original alkaline batteries in the Baker Electric — as invented by Edison — doesn't require an engineering degree. But then again, replacements aren't readily available.
But every car was really a protoÂtype. Abner Doble would turn one out, and his investors and board of directors would say, "This is great, Abner; it's perfect." But he would always want to change something. So in 1931, in the midst of the Depression, Doble went out of business.
People ask me what I think is the future of the automobile. Well, let's see what's out there. Hybrids are interesting because they make their own electricity and use it at the point of generation. But a hybrid has to carry two drive systems, which adds weight and complexity and seems counter to the whole purpose.
I'm not too bullish on electric cars as the way of the future. Modern electric cars go roughly 100 miles on a charge, about the same as my Baker; so I don't see much progress there. I think electricity is a great power source for a car. But the problem is, how do you get it?
Thomas Edison invented the alkaline battery. My Baker still has some original alkaline batteries. These have lead plates and use acid; we wash them out and refill them regularly and I'll use them indefinitely. But even Edison realized the future of the automobile was elsewhere. Legend has it that back in 1896, at a dinner party, he passed a note to his friend Henry Ford. Essentially it said, "The electric car is dead."
How prophetic was that?