To the casual observer, electric cars seemed to pop up out of nowhere in recent years. No one was questioning the down-and-dirty internal combustion engines that have dominated the automotive world for decades. Now Elon Musk is launching a Tesla into space, there are all-electric racing series springing out of the woodwork, suddenly EVs are actually kind of cool. Except people in the 1910s had already figured that out.
Case in point: the 1912 Baker Model-V Special Extension Coupe. Which, sure, probably wouldn’t be all that useful as a vehicle by modern standards, but was a pretty big step forward back in the day.
Walter C. Baker found his way into a pretty lucrative corner of the automotive business once he started manufacturing EVs. The Baker electrics debuted at the National Automobile Show in New York City and were immediately acclaimed for how light and silent they were. And I can understand how they felt; I was pretty entranced by this car when I found it during a visit to the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles in February, where staff will happily delve into the rich stories of the cars in their collection.
The Model-V was similar to a lot of other vehicles from Ohio-based Baker, which was founded in 1899 and made cars for nearly 20 years. It had a high enclosed body that looked like a box on wheels, no obvious battery compartment, electric headlights and an internal electric dome light. Instead of a steering wheel, you had a steering lever.
Powered by a lead-acid battery and a DC motor connected by a resistor string whose ohms could be controlled by that lever, the Model-V accelerated when the driver rotated the lever, which would lower the ohms, which, basically, meant you could go faster.
Batteries were rechargeable. When out and about in the city, you could hook your Model-V up to a charging station just like you would with a modern EV. It wasn’t likely that the average person would have a charging setup lying around in their own garage, but, thankfully, the dealership would take care of that for you in one of their charging stalls. It’s amazing how a century later, we’re coming back to some of these same ideas, just with much better tech.
What set the Model-V apart from other bare-bones early cars, though, was that this thing was decked out. We’re talking plush, embroidered seats (some of which were rear-facing, so everyone in the car could chat without craning their necks). We’re talking a wallpapered interior. We’re talking sconces and vases filled with flowers in each corner. It’s like you never even left the parlor!
See, early electric vehicles were especially marketed to women.
It was pretty much universally assumed that women wouldn’t be able to handle the crank-start of the louder, more powerful internal combustion engines. But hey, ladies wanted cars, so they were given an EV that was hard to handle and had a pretty limited range. It was electric, after all; it could only go 50 miles before it needs a charge, and charging a battery in the boonies is a lot harder than filling up a gas tank.
It was a little bit of a double-edged sword: cars like the Model-V gave ladies a sense of freedom and independence while also kind of… taking that away, compared to other cars.
And while no cars were cheap at the time, electric cars were even more expensive. We’re talking $250 to $1,500 more than a gasoline-powered car. So it’s not like women were going around saving up pocket change to to pick up one of these bad boys after a couple years.
The Model-V, along with Baker Motor Vehicles and pretty much all electric cars of the era, faded into obscurity pretty quick. After all, expensive cars that don’t travel too well aren’t likely to survive big earth-shattering events like, say, World War I or the Great Depression. As for Baker, it stuck around a few more years before merging with another company that eventually got out of cars entirely.
The stigma that “green cars” are innately feminine cars stuck around for a while, but it looks like we’ve finally stopped thinking that electric cars are less cool than their internal combustion counterparts. After all, they can still do burnouts and be competitive in open wheel racing—plus, a loaded Tesla Model S can cream a lot of exotics today. It may not be the electric future that the original automakers or sci-fi writers had intended, but it looks like things might be a little more all-inclusive in the future.
Although to be fair, there is still something kind of strangely neat about a car with an armchair as a front seat. Maybe that can come back too.