The first electric cars were essentially just horseless carriages that were used to transport the upper classes in the early 20th Century. It was seen as a quiet, fast, and odorless replacement of the horse-drawn carriages.
Most of their advantages of the electric vehicle were based on the time needed to start the vehicle. It was much simpler compared to the complex and possibly risky task when dealing with horses. It was also a lot more dignified to use compared to the early combustion engines at the time, which some electric car merchants dubbed as ‘explosion cars.’ It is no surprise then that electric cars became popular for doctors in the era to make house calls.
The Electric Vehicle Company from Hartford, CT, produced both gasoline and electric cars from 1897 to 1913, when it became part of the United States Motor Company. The 1905 MK XXXV Brougham had twin motors powered by an 88-volt wet cell battery and was had the capacity to drive at 18 mph through its 5-speed transmission.
It’s neither error nor coincidence that Columbia named its top of the line electric “Brougham” after the most popular closed carriage of the recent Victorian era. The Columbia Electric Brougham was conceived and built to transport “The Haves” with luxury and privacy. In dignified language that bordered on snobbery Columbia said so in restrained but unmistakably haughty terms in their catalog, booklet and print ads. . .
Columbia named its top-of-the-line electric car ‘Brougham’ after the most popular closed carriage from the Victorian era. The Columbia Electric Brougham was designed and built to transport ‘The Haves’ in complete privacy and luxury. It is evident from the catalog, print ads, and booklets that stated:
“Columbia electric town carriages of the coach type are built for private service only from plans and specifications approved by the most critical and discriminating class of vehicle owners. Fashion is autocratic in the manner of town carriages for private service. This is why it means so much that social leaders have approved of the Columbia Extension Front and Straight Front Electric Broughams which you may see standing before the doors of many exclusive homes in our large cities.”
The short duty cycles of the turn of the century electrics made for comparatively fast, quiet, safe, comfortable, and dignified city transport for the right sort of people. The Columbia Brougham was equipped with standard Michelin Pneumatic tires and was sold at $3,000, a price that was definitely not courting those who would become customers of Henry Ford when he turned the Model T loose on the world in 1908 for the common folk.
Most likely, Columbia had hoped that the prestige of the Brougham Mk XXXV would rub off on their other electric motor car models like the $1,700 Surrey that was equipped with an underslung battery, or the entry-level, two-place Runabout that was priced at $900.
Although it wasn’t publicly announced, one of Columbia’s noted clients was Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt, President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife. She purchased the stylish “Elberon” Victoria Mk XXXI worth $1,600. She was nicknamed ‘the secret president’ and it is claimed that she was the first woman to own and drive such a vehicle.
For tradesmen, one way to impress a customer was to have a Columbia electric truck worth $4,000 to be used for deliveries.
“Columbia had offices in major American cities. An electric — personal or commercial — could cross those cities many times on a single battery charge. That made electrics practical and gave them real utility at the turn of the last century. In America, railroads, not highways, connected far flung cities. In that world electrics made a lot of sense. Early electric car owners could be content knowing they were likely seen as members of the upper class. So, not much has changed on that front in the last 115 years.”
Founder and Chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Bill Warner