x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

100 years on, have electric cars gone that far?

As far as today's electric cars are concerned, they are a bit behind the times, as this 1909 Baker Electric proves, says Jay Leno.

Jay Leno rides a 1909 Baker Electric, which can travel 100 miles on a single charge.
Jay Leno rides a 1909 Baker Electric, which can travel 100 miles on a single charge.

Watch the video as Jay Leno takes a ride in his 1909 Baker Electric here

Electricity is really the ideal form of propulsion for the automobile. They knew this at the turn of the century; the problem was always batteries and range. That was the main concern of people back then and it is the main concern of people now. So electric cars are nothing new; we used two on the Jay Leno Show, two electric Ford Focuses to race around the track. And I've got my own electric car. It's quite advanced, it goes 100 miles on a charge, it's fully electric. And it was built in 1909.

So let's step back in time a little bit. I'm going to take a ride in my 1909 Baker Electric and you'll see just how much it has changed and actually how much it has stayed the same. I think you'll be surprised at some of the similarities. The Baker is quite easy to drive, you have two pedals, two brakes, a tiller steerer. Just turn the key and you're ready to go. Even roll-up windows hadn't been invented; this has the old railroad style where you just pull it up and slide it down. Really, all you have to do is push the lever and you move forward.

With the Focus, the first thing you notice is you get in and press the button and start and you press power and you don't hear anything because it's electric. You've got your energy usage meter, you have a speedometer and no tachometer because you don't need it. The Focus is eerily quiet, it is so quiet, in fact, all you hear is the tyres screeching. It's bit heavier in the back because you're carrying an extra 300lbs of batteries. People are really amazed at these Focus electric cars. And you forget after a while that there's no gasoline.

I contend that it's actually faster than a gas car because of the low-end torque of an electric car. The only place an electric car really loses out to a gasoline car is in top speed. They have equal acceleration and, in fact, in quietness and obviously emissions the electric car wins. And while this appears to be a standard Ford Focus, it has the rally suspension system setup in it. The 1909 Baker Electric, although it looks like a carriage - basically it is - it's actually quite advanced. The fenders are leather. That was sort of the carbon fibre of the day. Leather fenders were extremely lightweight. This car has electric lights, both interior and outside lights, electric taillights. Don't forget, most cars still had gas lamps - this was fully electric.

One thing that helped kill the electric car the first time around besides the usual problems of range was the fact that the self-starter had not been invented. When you wanted to start a gasoline car, you cranked. You could break your thumb, you could break your arm, you had to be pretty strong to do it. A lot of women couldn't drive because they weren't strong enough to crank that motor and second of all it wasn't ladylike back in the day. So women loved electric cars. Clara Ford, Henry Ford's wife, drove a Baker 'cause she couldn't crank a Model T. But you can't sell a guy a woman's car, so even though electric cars had so much going for them, they just didn't sell enough to survive.

So the principle is the same between the Ford Focus and this 1909 Baker Electric, you have a lot of batteries, this one (the Baker) is 78 volts, a six-volt system. And the Ford Focus where you just press on the pedal and go, this one, you have a series of quadrants. The idea being that you're not pushing the lever all the way forward and frying the system so you go along and top speed is about 22 miles an hour (35kph). It doesn't seem like much, but when you're driving a car that is as tall as it is long, you don't want to go much faster than 22 miles an hour.

Don't forget there were no paved roads and in New York City this was the perfect women's shopping car. You could just charge it up and go to Macy's or Gimbels. And New York surprisingly at the turn of the century had a number of charging stations every 10 blocks or so. These were taxi cabs as well. The driving experience is the same in that you have a tremendous amount of torque with both cars, and although the Baker doesn't go particularly fast, it will climb any hill with four people in it, because electric motors make all the torque from rest, from zero. You just push on the gear lever here, push on the throttle or the rheostat I guess you'd call it and you've got all the power you need.

I do feel a connection between the two cars because the mode of transportation is exactly the same, there is no transmission, the engine is connected directly to the rear wheels and when you put electricity through the motor it goes immediately to the rear wheels. The drive train or the way the drive train works is exactly the same. The parts that have changed are obviously that the Focus's motor is more efficient and your range is a lot better.

I think electric is the future for now. Hydrogen and all that kind of stuff is very sexy but we have electricity, we have the infrastructure for electricity so I think at least for the near future, electric will be the next way to go. motoring@thenational.ae