The electric car is nothing new. Ninety years ago, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, two of America's greatest innovators, tried building one and failed. Daniel Strohl of Hemmings Blog tells us how they killed the electric car. —Ed.
That Henry Ford and Thomas Edison became good friends later in their lives is well known. They camped together, they presented each other with lavish gifts, they owned houses immediately adjacent to each other. Many Ford enthusiasts also know that, at the time Ford first drove his Quadricycle on the streets of Detroit in 1896, he was working for Edison at the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. They also know that a couple months later, when Ford was introduced to Edison and showed Edison his plans for a gasoline automobile, Edison encouraged him to pursue those plans.
That Edison and Ford later put their minds together to conceive a low-priced electric car is not so well known.
At about the same time Ford founded his eponymous automobile company, Edison had made inroads into battery technology and began offering nickel-iron storage batteries for several uses, among them automobiles. His announced plans that same year to convert four large touring cars from gasoline to electric power (using his own batteries, of course) reeks of a publicity stunt to sell his new batteries, but it was enough to get him listed in the Standard Catalog. And though he prodded Ford off into production of gasoline cars, by 1903 he was denouncing them.
Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.
Ford, however, still high on Edison's encouragement (he's often quoted as saying that Edison was the greatest man in the world,
so he would probably have jumped off a bridge if Thomas Alva told him to), not only rigorously pursued the gasoline-powered car and left Detroit Edison to found his own automobile company, he also ordered the development of a flywheel magneto system for the Model T specifically to avoid using batteries. (One story I've read, possibly apocryphal, is that during one of Henry Ford's camping trips, the battery in a pre-production Model T overturned, cutting the trip short and causing Ford to ban batteries from his new low-priced car.)
Just about five years later, Ford began to change his mind. In early 1914, word had gotten around that work had started on a low-priced electric car. Reports appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in the trade magazines, and in other newspapers as far away as New Zealand regarding Ford's foray into electric cars. Ford himself even confirmed the rumors in the January 11, 1914 issue of the New York Times:
Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don't like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans.
The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.
Ford may have fibbed a little by saying that multiple experimental cars have been built, but we know for a fact that at least one experimental Ford electric was built in 1913, as seen above out in front of Ford's Highland park plant. It was a tiller-steered car with an unusually swoopy frame and a contingent of batteries under the seat. The man operating it, Fred Allison, was an electrical engineer from Detroit who was tasked with designing the car's motor. According to Ford Richardson Bryan, writing in his book, Friends, families, & forays: scenes from the life and times of Henry Ford, the car's electrical system and overall design were handed to Alexander Churchward, at that time the vice president of Gray & Davis, while general mechanic's duties were assigned to Samuel Wilson, a former Cadillac employee. A year earlier, Churchward had written a paper on the standardization of the electric car (in which he argued for a 25-mph maximum speed for all electric vehicles), while Wilson had experience with Cadillac's self-starter program.
Work continued into 1914, as we can see from Allison perched atop the second experimental electric car, this one using a Model T frame, suspension and front axle, a Model T steering wheel, and a worm-drive rear axle. The latter indicates that the motor, mounted behind the driver in the prior car, resided up front in the second car, near the additional bank of batteries. Regarding that worm-drive rear axle, Ford Richardson Bryan once again fills us in, noting in his book, Henry's Lieutenants,
that Eugene Farkas was responsible not only for the worm-drive rear axle that was later modified for use in the Fordson, he was also responsible for the entire chassis of the electric car.
Rumors swirled in the automotive press for the remainder of 1914, stoked by Henry Ford's secretary, Ernest Liebold. Edsel Ford was said to have been put in charge of the Edison-Ford. Henry Ford was said to have bought an electricity-generating plant in Niagara Falls, as well as a site off Woodward Avenue specifically for the production of the Edison-Ford. As the year wore on, the rumormill pegged the release of the electric car for 1915, then 1916. Details on the car varied: It would cost somewhere between $500 and $750, and it would range somewhere between 50 miles and 100 miles on a charge. Even today, sources vary as to whether the car would have a brougham or cabriolet body placed atop its chassis. Edison himself, in an interview with Automobile Topics in May 1914, divulged no details and made his best "It's coming, just be patient" speech, the kind that GM has perfected in recent years with the Volt:
He called attention to the fact that a new automobile, especially one embodying such radical features as a $500 or $750 electric pleasure car naturally must have, cannot be designed and constructed in a few weeks.
"Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long.
"I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric."
Edison, by the way, was himself no stranger to electric cars. Bryan noted in Friends, Families and Forays that Edison built a battery-powered front-wheel-drive electric in 1895, and he's noted as owning a few of the very expensive electric cars then in production.
We've so far seen no evidence that the press of the day ever got its hands on a photo or any solid evidence of the two electric experimentals that Ford had built, and eventually, the press seemed to forget about the Edison-Ford altogether. Some conspiracy theorists believe the oil cartels got to Ford and Edison and caused them to abandon the project; they offer as evidence the "mysterious" fire that nearly destroyed Edison's workshops in West Orange, New Jersey, in December 1914. Besides the fact that all work on the electric took place in Dearborn (and the fact that Edison got right back on the horse and had his whole place rebuilt by the next spring), we also see in the coverage of the fire in the December 10, 1914, issue of the New York Times that the fire skirted the two buildings in which any work on the electric car would have taken place.
It was seen that the only important buildings that could be saved were the experimental laboratory and the storage-battery building, and all attention was given to them.
Mr. Edison was in the experimental laboratory when the fire began. He helped in the salvage work, and when that was finished he went to the storage battery building and directed the protection of that structure.
Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because Ford demanded the use of Edison's nickel-iron batteries in the car, and would have no other battery powering this car. Edison's batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries (which would have made the car too ponderous) were substituted behind Henry Ford's back, and when he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell to the wayside with other projects demanding Henry Ford's time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million in the electric-car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.
Alexander Churchward (who had already racked up dozens of patents and would be issued dozens more) went back to a successful career at Gray & Davis and also, for a time, served as vice president of the A.B.C. Starter Company, the same company that later employed Allison as chief engineer. Of the patents granted to Allison that we've found, one (1,225,558, dated May 8, 1917) was assigned to the A.B.C. Starter Company, while the other two (1,478,196, dated December 18, 1923, and 1,508,377, dated September 16, 1924) were assigned to Ford Motor Company, so Allison very well may have leveraged his experience with the electric car to a career at Ford. Both men were instrumental in Ford's later adoption of the electric self-starter and electric lighting systems in 1919.
As a side note, Ford recently announced that it plans to invest $135 million into electric-car development. Here's hoping, Henry.
Hemmings Motor News strives to enhance the experience of the collector-car enthusiast by publishing high-quality magazines and offering one of the most comprehensive classic-car classifieds in the world. Daniel Strohl is an associate editor with the company.