News Column

Modern Electrics Look to the Past

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Much fuss has been made over the all-electric Nissan Leaf. It's a high-tech, low-emissions car with plenty of room inside and just quirky enough with its bug-eyed appearance.

Nissan's been talking a lot lately about innovation, and when the company put the Leaf on sale to buyers across the United States early last year, company officials were understandably excited.

"The Leaf, the world's first and only electric car," Nissan officials boasted at the time, "now also is the only electric car ever to be available nationwide."

Except, there's this: The basic ideas behind electric cars aren't new. Not even close. More than 300 U.S. companies made electric cars before World War II. Some assembled a single prototype. Others built thousands of vehicles.

Two of those companies were in Toledo.

The merits of electric cars certainly remain up for debate today, but don't let anyone try to tell you the technology is new. And it's not just the basic idea of electric cars that's 100 years old, it's the very same kinds of technology touted today.

Plug-in battery packs? Had 'em. Gas-electric hybrids? Check. Regenerative braking? Yawn.

Remember, electricity wasn't even in most homes at that time. Susan Spellman, a history professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said just 8 percent of U.S. homes were wired for electricity in 1907. Electricity in homes increased rapidly, doubling to 16 percent in 1912 and 34 percent in 1920, but it still was a technology most of America didn't have access to at home.

In the early days of motoring, the fuel of choice that would power automobiles into the future was very much in question. Car builders used steam power, electricity, and internal combustion engines to drive their carriages.

"For a while there, it was anybody's guess whether it would be electric, gas, or steam that would win out as the power of choice," said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Though gasoline ultimately won out, early electric vehicles were quite popular between 1905 and 1915. Two Toledo companies built electric cars: the Ohio Electric Car Co. and the Milburn Wagon Co., which was one of the more successful electric car builders of the era.

"They really enjoyed their peak in the years before the self-starter was introduced for the internal combustion," Mr. Anderson said of the early electrics. "That was one of their great advantages -- you didn't have to crank-start the car. That and they were a lot cleaner and quieter, as they are today."

Operating a car in those early days was a far more complex exercise than it is today. Until Ohioan Charles Kettering invented the electric starting motor, cars had to be started by hand crank, a difficult and at times dangerous task. Many electric car companies advertised to women, hoping to appeal to their proper sensibilities.

In an electric, all the driver had to do was flip a switch.

Rolling 1917-style

"It's in neutral now," Ford Cauffiel said, his hand hovering over a nickel-colored lever. "When you get in to run, you put it over here," he says, flipping the lever to the left.

With that, Mr. Cauffiel grabs hold of the two tillers that control the car -- there's no steering wheel or accelerator pedal -- and takes off.

"You see how quiet it is," he said as the 1917 Milburn eases down the pavement with only a hint of road noise.

Mr. Cauffiel, a successful Toledo entrepreneur and noted car collector, has owned his Milburn for more than a decade. He bought the car sight-unseen from a fellow in Wisconsin.

For a 96-year-old car, the Milburn looks remarkable. The black fenders and cream-colored wire wheels have been repainted, but the original cobalt blue body paint still carries the same deep luster it had when it rolled out of the Milburn Wagon Co. plant on Monroe Street near Detroit Avenue.

The company came to Toledo from Indiana in 1873 and began operations in 1875. It became one of Toledo's first big factories, and one of the world's great producers of wooden wagons.

As motors replaced horses, Milburn shifted some of its operations to building electric cars.

Chris Ritter, the head librarian for the Antique Automobile Club of America Library and Research Center in Hershey, Pa., said Milburn began making electric cars in late 1914. Production continued until the company went under in early 1923.

There aren't many records available, but Mr. Ritter said the company built 1,000 Milburn Light Electrics in 1915 and 1,500 of the cars in 1916. In all, Milburn built about 5,000 electric vehicles. The company never made a gas-powered car.

Few Milburns survive. An online registry lists 54 cars, including Mr. Cauffiel's and one in the collection of the Allen County Museum in Lima.

"Milburn was very advanced because it was lighter than any of them," Mr. Cauffiel said. "They had a very complicated spoke design to carry the weight of the batteries. The price was lower than most of them. It was considered a highly advanced electric car for its day."

How it works

The Milburn has five forward speeds and two reverse. Like modern electrics, applying the brakes routes power through a generator that recharges the batteries. The cabin is fitted with a gauge that shows how much charge the car has left.

Batteries fill the hood and the trunk, 14 in all. Though the batteries Mr. Cauffiel uses are modern -- they're deep cell six-volt batteries made for forklifts -- they're the same size as the originals.

Mr. Cauffiel said the car was advertised to go 100 miles between charges. He guesses with fully charged modern batteries the car would go 150 miles between charges.

A 1915 company brochure shows a range of up to 80 miles for the Milburn.

Either figure compares favorably with the Leaf, which is rated by the EPA as having a range up to 75 miles. The larger and more expensive Tesla Model S has an EPA range of 265 miles per charge.

The car Mr. Cauffiel owns seats five. Three, including the driver, can sit across a bench seat behind the tillers. Two more can sit on fold-down, rear-facing seats, a somewhat peculiar seating arrangement, but one that Mr. Cauffiel said works.

The challenges that held back the electric car then are the very same ones troubling the industry today. The cars were more expensive, their range was limited, and no widespread, reliable infrastructure for recharging batteries existed.

Mr. Ritter said new Milburns typically cost between $1,500 to $2,000. A 1916 Milburn ad in the Literary Digest shows pricing at $1,285 for the roadster, and $1,585 for the brougham. (In 2013 dollars, the brougham -- essentially a tall sedan -- would cost about $34,000.) A new Ford Model T, meanwhile, could have been bought for less than $400 in 1916.

Ohio Electric was even more more expensive, with prices ranging from $2,300 to $3,200. Mr. Ritter said that company produced cars from 1910 to 1918. In 1916, it produced 650 vehicles at its West Bancroft Street factory.

Concept fizzles

Another problem for electric car companies was that as roads improved, people began traveling farther.

"Gasoline was more portable. You could bring extra gas with you and increasingly you could find it along the way," Mr. Anderson said. "Service stations started popping up, and many general stores sold gasoline."

Quickly, the power ran out for electrics. A few companies held on. Notably, Detroit Electric sold cars through 1939. But by the time civilian vehicle production restarted following World War II, electric cars were an afterthought. Environmental concerns were few, while gas was plentiful and cheap.

Gassing up

That all started to change in the 1960s, with the launch of the environmental movement. The 1970s brought oil embargoes and gas shortages. People began to realize that fossil fuel was a volatile resource.

Still, it would be nearly two decades before a modern electric car was produced by a major automaker.

"Electricity doesn't really get serious until the 1990s, until GM experiments with EV1," Mr. Anderson said.

Today there are a handful of pure electrics available to U.S. buyers, led primarily by the Leaf, which was introduced in 2010.

Nissan sold 11,703 Leafs in the first seven months of this year. It doesn't sound like a lot -- and it's not -- but sales of the Leaf have outpaced the Nissan 370Z sports coupe and have surpassed the total from each of the last two years.

Still, it isn't selling as well as dealers might like.

"It's one of those vehicles, it's not for everyone," said Eric Stewart, sales manager at Yark Nissan.

Interest was strong initially, but fell off somewhat, Mr. Stewart said. A decision by Nissan to cut the lease price helped, but dealerships still haven't seen the traffic they would like to see.

John O'Dell, a senior editor with automobile Web site Edmunds.com and a Leaf owner, said in theory electric cars are great. They're clean, they're quick, they're cheap to operate. But the fundamental problems are still there.

"We're a convenience-oriented society, and that's the biggest issue with the electric vehicle we know today," he said. "It's not as convenient as the gasoline car we're asking people to replace it with."

The better option for now, Mr. O'Dell said, are the plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt: Cars that can run all electric for short trips, but have a gasoline engine that can pitch in for long distances. They come closer to replicating the ease of gasoline while providing the option of full-electric.

"I don't see [pure electrics] making huge inroads with what we know about batteries, charging, and charging capacity," he said. "That's not to say 10 years down the road we don't have a 300-mile battery that charges in 10 minutes."

Price concerns

One thing that might help would be a drop in the price. Mr. O'Dell said the industry expects to be able to cut the price of batteries by half in the next five to seven years. That could represent savings of as much as $10,000 per vehicle.

Another idea is to lease the battery separate from the car, effectively reducing the cost of the car and alleviating consumers' worries that the battery may wear out. Smart is offering that option as it rolls out its tiny Smart Electric Drive, letting customers lease the battery for $80 a month.

Innovative? For this century, maybe.

In 1917, a Milburn dealer in Chicago unveiled a nearly identical program in which he sold the cars for $1,485 and leased the batteries for $15 a month.

"Here is the most important announcement ever made in the electric car field," an ad read.

The dealer's customers also could take advantage of $1 battery pack changes at five stations in the greater Chicago area.

Just further proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And some things, well, some things never change.

A Milburn sales catalog that the AACA has in its library claimed a big advantage for the electric car because gasoline was so expensive.

"I got a chuckle from that," Mr. Ritter said. "I guess people have been complaining about that for well over 100 years."

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at or 419-724-6134.

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