1904 Baker: This EV is so last century
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It’s rare that a freelance writer can boast of sharing a motoring experience with a US president and his wife, but I have — for I have driven a Baker electric car.
Yes, the same Cleveland, Ohio brand that was briefly the biggest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the world — in 1906 — supplied one as part of the first fleet at the US White House.
And it was driven by Helen Herron, wife of the 17th US president, William Howard Taft.
This 1904 Baker was acquired by Neville Digby in 2011. “I’ve got a small collection of antique cars, and have had a number over 100 years old.”
Digby works as an engineer in the electrical industry, and helped restore a 1928 Walker Electric truck owned by his employer in the 1980s. Then, in 2008, he was contacted by an American who was restoring another, and seeking information.
“I copied about two inches thick of A4 material — including drawings — and sent it to him, then I never heard back, I was pretty peeved.”
Eventually he realised that when he retired, he’d miss the truck.
“So I started looking round the world for a really old electric car.”
He bid at a number of international auctions but, despite selling a 1906 Cadillac to boost his bank balance, his pockets were never sufficiently deep.
Then a fellow member of the Antique Electric Vehicle Association in the US emailed about an 86-year-old California member who was thinking about selling his Baker.
“I rang him up. He was frosty as hell and there was no hope he’d sell to someone in New Zealand.”
That was despite Neville mentioning his role as president of NZ’s Veteran Car Club.
“Then I started talking about restoring the Walker electric truck, and I sensed a change in his demeanour, and he said, ‘are you the bloke who copied all the information about the Walker and sent it to my best friend Eric’?”
Ten minutes later, he owned the Baker.
“It was in similar condition to this; all I had to do were a few mechanicals. I’ve left it as original as I can, a bit of the leather isn’t in that good a condition and I have a real dilemma on whether to leave it as is or replace in as original.”
Boxes front and back hold four modern 12V batteries. It was always 12V, though. “It originally had Edison cells in it — Edison’s first car was a Baker electric — but finding those would be too much of a challenge!”
He does have an original Westinghouse charger. “I have not found another anywhere else in the world, I’d love to find one as I can read only about an eighth of the circuit diagram on mine.”
The charger weighs 300kg. “It’s nearly one cubic metre of steel and copper, and it cost more to get it freighted here than to buy it.”
As an aside, he says it used a mercury arc rectifier to turn AC into DC current. “It uses about about 0.4kg of mercury, and I have one of those original tubes.
They’re about 18 inches high by 14 wide with a bloody great bulb of mercury in it.”
The batteries power a 1.86kW Westinghouse electric motor, with a gauge by the driver’s feet measuring the voltage and amperage being drawn.
There’s about two hours of driving time from an overnight charge, though he only banks on one hour, “Unlike modern electric vehicles you don’t get regenerative braking, and of course hills use a heap of energy, which is hard to predict.”
That means he uses a trailer to go further afield — towing it to Napier for this year’s Art Deco Festival.
Which is where I got my drive. I was stunned to be offered the chance. This is a rare and no doubt valuable vehicle, but it seemed appropriate to pilot it while dressed in 1930s costume, rolling around the Mission Estate winery.
It looked intimidating, but there’s not much to it — a tiller, a speed control lever which you push forward and back, with a button on the end to activate a bell, plus two brake pedals on the floor, one operating the rear axle drum brakes, the other working on the motor shaft.
You simply clamber up, grasp the lever with your left hand, the tiller with your right — forward or backwards to go left or right — move the lever, and you’re off.
It’s completely silently, for those huge hoop wheels are narrow enough that the rubber barely whispers on the tar, and you have to be ready to hit that bell sharpish, as pedestrians have a nasty habit of stepping out and frankly, you don’t want to put those brakes to the acid test.
The car tops out at 40km/h — without a speedo I have no idea how fast I went — but fast enough.
And it turns impressively sharply, given there’s almost no bodywork to impede the wheels.
It’s easy to drive — no wonder America’s First Lady was game to try what was then revolutionary transport. I’m in exalted company.