As gas prices continue to fluctuate, many drivers are seeking more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly vehicles. The Nissan Leaf is unique among modern alt-fuel vehicles because it is a purely battery-powered vehicle that does not include a gas engine at all – unlike its competitors from Toyota and Chevrolet.
A pure electric-powered car may seem like a novel approach to getting better fuel economy, however the idea is anything but new.
Last year, I had a chance to visit the Wells Auto Museum in Wells, Maine while on vacation. The museum has an expansive collection of 80 pre-war vehicles, including one that really surprised me!
The museum has a 1908 Baker Electric car that runs on – you guessed it – electricity! The placard next to the car contained this information:
Baker Motor Vehicle Co – Cleveland, OH
Original Price: $2,500. 4-pole series wound electric motor rated at 3.5 HP. Batteries consisted of four 80-volt, 96-amp hr exide cells (battery weight: 950 lbs). Controller drum continuous torque system gives 9 forward speeds and 3 reverse. Speed ranged from 3 to 30mph without using resistance. This car was originally owned by John D. Rockefeller. The body with facing seats was designed and built for his children.
The Baker Motor Company produced numerous different models of electric cars between 1899 and 1916. Bakers were known for their smooth, quiet operation and high build quality. Both Thomas Edison and the King of Siam owned Bakers in the early 1900s. As noted, this particular one belonged to John D. Rockefeller!
When this car was produced, Baker was the largest manufacturer of electric cars in the world. However, 1908 was also the year when an upstart car manufacturer called Ford began production of the Model T. At just $825, the gasoline-powered Model T was much more affordable to the masses. By 1927, Ford has sold a staggering 15 million of them!
The market for electric cars hit a fever pitch by 1914 as World War I broke out, resulting in gasoline shortages. Baker lost its sales lead to rival Detroit Electric that same year. With sales declining, Baker merged with another local automaker and finally left the passenger car business for good in 1916.
Today’s answer to the Baker Electric is the Nissan Leaf: an all-electric car that offers greater range as well as safety belts, air bags, and air conditioning. Is the Leaf the pinnacle of decades of automotive design and engineering, or will it have the same problems of cost, weight, and limited refueling infrastructure that Baker ran into over a century ago? Only time will tell.
UPDATE: The Wells Auto Museum has closed permanently since this article was published.