Too Ambitious For Its Time, It Crashed While Attempting To Do A Mile In A Minute On New York’s Staten Island
1902 was such a long time ago — the czar ruled Russia; Kipling had just written Kim; Gandhi was in South Africa; The Wright Brothers’ first flight was a year away.
Automobiles were rare, and those that were around looked like carriages with their horses unyoked. Designers did not bother about streamlining and drag coefficients. One of the top two race cars of the era looked like this. Any hot hatch today could have matched the 9,000-cc behemoth.
Electric cars were even slower. Men kept a safe distance from them. A decade later, none of the electrics sold in America did more than 25 mph. Yet, there was one electric car in 1902 that aspired to go as fast as the fastest gasoline cars and cover the mile from a standing start in a minute. It was the car seen in the picture above.
It didn’t look like any other car that had been designed until then. A magazine described it thus: “not an automobile, not even a racing automobile, or a racing machine, but simply a speed machine with a wrong classification label”.
Built by the Baker Motor Vehicle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, it was designed solely for the purpose of breaking records, although, on paper, it was no match for the Mors and Panhard petrol racers of the time.
This is a partial list of the cars that entered the speed trials at New York’s Staten Island on May 31, 1902. Against the Mors’ 60 HP engine, the Baker’s 7 HP motor seems puny, but on test day it was a close second at the kilometre mark before it spun out of control and crashed.
Under the hood
The car had an iron frame covered with wood and fabric. The book Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History by Curtis Darrel Anderson and Judy Anderson says:
“The wheels had wooden rims with three-inch pneumatic tyres and were also covered with a canvas fabric. The auto weighed 3,000 pounds, a hefty machine for a racer. The weight was primarily due to the batteries and controlling apparatus, consisting of forty cells of ‘light-weight’ Gould lead-zinc accumulators, assembled around the vehicle in a U-shape on each side of the operator’s seats.”
The cabin, rather cockpit, was described at the time as “a dark cavity from which the driver or steersman could not freely survey his surroundings while guiding his machine.” Two men operated the car. One steered while the other handled the electric controls.
W C Baker, president of Baker Motor Vehicle Company, was at the wheel on the ill-fated day while his assistant, electrician C E Denzer, sat behind “watching the gauges and machinery”. Baker, 32 years old at the time, had “a reputation as a skilled electrician and a careful man.”
Experts later blamed the car’s poor all-round visibility for the crash: “In no speed machine graced with the name of an automobile has it ever been attempted to place the man at the steering wheel under complete cover, and with his eyes limited in vision by the area of a mica pane some 10 inches in width and perhaps 2 inches high… placing him in such a position that the first jolt might obscure and confound his sense of sight and render it impossible for him to determine, instantly and instinctively, the direction of the vehicle and its relation to the roadbed.”
The speed test
On that Saturday about 10,000 spectators gathered at the speed course on Staten Island that was created by blocking the road between Dongan Hills (mentioned as Dugan Hills in papers of that era) and Grant City. The World’s evening edition of the day reported: “For the distance of a kilometre the road was as straight as the flight of a bullet. Then there was a slight turn, just sufficient to make the flying machines skid enough to thrill the spectators.”
The World mentioned 49 participants going for two existing records — kilometre in 29.8 seconds, and mile in 51.8 seconds. Neither record was broken, but the Mors, weighing 3,240 pounds, crossed the kilometre in 34.4 seconds and the mile in 55.3. The Baker — number 39 — crossed the kilometre in 36.2 seconds, and crashed soon after.
Could Baker and Denzer have achieved their target? After being extricated from the wreck, a shaken Denzer told the New York Daily Tribune: “Before the accident we were going inside of 48 seconds. We had a poor start, and were picking up time. We had the record going all right.”
Baker and Denzer had crossed the kilometre mark without incident. “They could not feel the speed of the vehicle as they were completely covered.” But as they took the turn in the road “there began a slight undulating motion as if they were in a boat on the water, and then the machine began to sway.”
Baker called to Denzer to “cut off the electric current, and apply both brakes. He jammed on the brakes so hard that the rear wheels were locked and the vehicle began to slew around.Then it seemed that the crowd of spectators were whirling past the little window in the conning hood in a circle to the right.”
The crash would not have been a big deal but for the collateral loss of life. It was not carnage on the 1955 Le Mans scale, but terrible nonetheless.
“Runaway auto deals death in holiday crowd,” said the headline in the same evening’s The World. One man was killed on the spot while another was crushed so badly, he was unlikely to survive.
Eyewitnesses told The World the machine was “running so fast… the front wheels were off the ground… The machine left the track and crashed into a crowd of spectators sitting or standing on the grass alongside the Speedway… It was feared for a time that the mob would attempt to wreak vengeance upon the unfortunate chauffeur, but the police hurried him and his companion to a place of safety.”
The World said Baker and Denzer had jumped out of the moving car, which then “ploughed into the crowd lining the speedway and did not stop until the body of John Brick, of Stapleton, became so wedged in the machinery that further progress was impossible.”
But another journal reported that Baker had completely lost his bearings when the car spun out of control “and the next he was conscious of was excited shouts and hammering on the thin body of the machine.” This was probably true because “Denzer had a lame back and a big lump on the back of his head. Baker said Denzer’s head injury occurred when rescuers started to pound in the top of the automobile body to rescue them.” Baker himself got away with a sore right leg and feeling stiff all over.
Through different eyes
We know how the crash happened — the car skidded at the bend after the kilometre mark, hit a trolley track and then plunged into the crowd to the south of the road. But there were different accounts of why it happened.
Baker told The World “The road was too uneven”, so the road master was to blame. Some experts blamed the design of his steering, others his flimsy wheels, and yet others the poor visibility through the tiny windscreen.
Amid the allegations, Automobile Club of America president A R Shattuck was asked if he had inspected the machine. “There was nothing freakish about the automobile except its peculiar windbreak…The machine had been tried a number of times in Cleveland before Mr Baker brought it east. He had met with no mishaps. The trials yesterday were free for all, and we saw no reason to bar the entry of the Cleveland machine,” he replied.
Baker and Denzer were arrested and locked up at Stapleton police station. They were later released on bonds of $10,000 and $5,000 each, respectively.
On June 3, Automobile Club of America passed a resolution saying the accident had convinced it that “it is unwise to hold speed trials with automobiles on the public highways, and that the governors of this club will not hold or consent to the holding of such contests by the club.”
After that, American Automobile Association “formally conferred authority upon the stewards of race meets to exclude any machine which they might consider unsuitable or dangerous.”