Jay's Book Club: ELVAComing Dec 21
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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 considered 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.