The Indestructible Electric

KEN W. PURDYis widely known for his writing on motoring subjects, His book KINGS OF THE ROADis a standard work on the great automobiles of bygone days.

Sixty-four years ago, in 1898, at Acheres, France, the Marquis de Chaseloup-Laubat set the world’s first official land-speed record, at 39.24 miles per hour. He drove a Jeantaud electric automobile. In 1899, Camille Jenatzy raised the record to 65.79 miles an hour. Jenatzy used an electric automobile romantically named La Jamais Contente. Three years later, an American Baker electric race car did 120 mph. No electric automobile has done anything so spectacular since, and one might say that the electric reached its high-water mark at the turn of the century and never amounted to much afterward.

Those who remember the black, square, big-windowed electrics of 1900 to 1925 would argue the point. In the years before World War I, the electric did indeed flourish. Many firms undertook to build electrics in those years, and some of them prospered — Rausch & Lang, Baker, Milburn, Detroit. Rausch & Lang lasted longest, until 1928, and from that year until 1961 there were no electrically driven automobiles on the market. Trucks, yes, but no passenger cars.

A few days ago I returned to its manufacturer a 1961 electric automobile, and I am surprised to notice that I miss it and wish I had it back. In the course of a year I drive twenty or thirty automobiles, and, excepting such specimens of the exotic as a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce, returning them occasions no trauma. This new electric, called the Henney Kilowatt, has some endearing characteristics.

Driving an electric automobile calls for reorientation. One remembers the old electrics as moving twelve or fifteen miles an hour over city streets, an elderly lady usually at the tiller, a silvery tinkling bell sounding instead of a horn. They didn’t look like other automobiles, inside or out. They were tall. A man wearing a top hat could board without difficulty. They were roomy. Some had pedestal seats that turned 360 degrees. Most steered by tiller, a long lever that came high across the driver’s lap and could be folded up out of the way when the car was stopped. On a light, slow-moving vehicle, tiller steering is pleasant; it is easy, does not require nearly as much arm movement as a wheel, and gives a notable sense ol control. Another, smaller lever, or a twistgrip, governed the amount of current sent to the motor. Some electrics were luxuriously upholstered and fitted out.

The modern electric is less glamorous. Various designs have been proposed in the last few years, some of them quite radical, but at this writing only one electric car is on the market. That is the Henney, offered by the National Union Electric Corporation at $3650. Another maker, Stuart Motors of Kalamazoo, anticipates beginning production soon and is aiming at a $1400 price.

Recharging can be free, too. Visiting a friend who lives 26 miles away, I felt I should put in a little charge before returning home, since I was making no attempt to drive economically. I drove up to my friend’s garage door, pulled out the charger cord, and said, “I have an electric car here; you don’t mind it I recharge the batteries a bit?” He not only had no objection, he was intrigued by the idea. He had never seen an electric car of any kind before. Subsequently, I used the same gambit on a number of other people, trying to find someone who would react in a normal fashion, as one might react on being asked for three gallons of gasoline, for example. It was a futile quest. Everyone was acquiescent — indeed, enthusiastic.

The electric car has notable disadvantages, of course. Its range and its speed are severely limited. It is cheap to run, at half a cent to a cent a mile, but, like everything else, it is expensive to make in small quantities, and there is presently no sign of a market that will support mass production. Because its motor cannot freeze and will start instantly in any weather as long as the batteries are not flat, the electric makes a good commuter’s station car. It is ideal for one service — intra-city use. Short-haul shopping trips and the incessant child ferrying most mothers do are absurd usages of a seven-passenger 200-horsepower motorcar. Electrics make excellent taxis, too. At 40 miles an hour, they are quite fast enough for any urban requirement. Despite the impression of speed that they give, few ambulances or fire engines exceed that rate in emergency service. Most of the thousand or so electric vehicles now in use in this country are city delivery trucks. Nearly all of the Henney cars have been sold to utility companies, which find them economical for such tasks as meter reading. Because they have so few movingparts, electrics rarely need the expensive services of professional mechanics. Replacement parts are almost. never needed.

The Stuart car, designed from the ground up as an electric, is square and boxy, 64 inches wide and 56 inches high, intended to carry two adults, two children, and still have some cargo space. Since it is not stressed for gasoline-engine power, it is lighter in weight than the Henney.

The appearance of two makes does not necessarily presage a renaissance of the electric automobile. The characteristics that made the old-time electrics attractive — ease of control, no dangerous and difficult hand cranking — are available today in internal-combustion cars. However, the increasing cost of gasoline, the availability of new types of batteries, and the worsening smog problem have fostered much interest in the electric since the end of World War II. The old lead-acid storage battery is still the world’s standard, but only the high price consequent on limited production bars the wider use of more sophisticated units — silver-zinc and nickel-cadmium, for example — which may be more efficient, lighter, and longer-lived. Even a good lead-acid battery will accept 2000 charge-discharge cycles. Electric delivery trucks have run 100,000 miles on one set of batteries.

Electric vehicles have been run on current produced by the socalled solar cells, silicon converters that use sunlight as a primary power source. Alas, at present they use eight to ten hours of sunlight to provide one hour’s running.

It is probable that the electric car, if it does reappear in force, will be driven by the fuel cell, a remarkable new power source invented in England by F. T. Bacon, a descendant of Francis Bacon. This is the problem Bacon set himself: To invent a battery which will produce electricity in the regular way, by chemical reaction, without the necessity of the charge-recharge cycle, but with a continuous supply of the necessary chemicals. The idea was not new. Attempts had been made on it in the nineteenth century. Bacon found a solution. By combining hydrogen and oxygen with a catalyst of nickel, he produced fifteen times as much electricity per pound of weight as the best lead-acid battery. AllisChalmers of Milwaukee has made a tractor which runs on fuel cells which are fed hydrogen and propane. Oxygen, air, alcohol, or gasoline can be used as well. Whatever is used as fuel is combined with oxygen by the action of a catalyst, releasing energy in the form of electrons, which are pushed out of the cell as electricity. Fuel cells produce great power in proportion to their weight; they operate in silence; and their exhaust is harmless. Attractive as they appear at the moment, they are in an early stage of development, and improvement can be expected. An electric automobile with a range of 350 to 500 miles and a speed of 55 to 70 miles per hour would be irresistibly attractive. The fuel cell may bring it to us.