Skip to main content

No Fuel, No Fumes, No Flats, No Fuss

July 2024
1min read

Electric cars may come back but never, alas! the patrician Woods

About all that remains today of the Woods Motor Car is the memory suggested by a tattered catalogue. The time was 1900, and the automobile was very much a carriage without the horse; the four Woods models shown overleaf further bear out the impression. The names are taken from carriage styles, and the descriptions, which we quote verbatim, are aimed not at the mob but the nabob, the kind of consumer who kept liveried coachmen and footmen as a matter of course.

What drew the wealthy to the Woods was its simple electric motive power. Like the longer-lived Baker and the Detroit Electric, it was simplicity itself to operate, and it was slow—an ideal “second car” which a lady might drive while the noisier set, obsessed with speed, played with steam and gasoline-powered cars. Electrics had reached a sedate maximum of twenty-five miles per hour by 1910, and coidd go seventy-five miles before recharging the heavy storage batteries, but there were no punctures to be repaired by delicate hands (the Woods had hard tires) and no gears to confuse the driver. One pushed the lever one way to increase speed, and pulled it back to brake. Thus, taking into account the steering tiller, the enthusiastic Scientific American could exclaim in 1900 that “only two points of attention are necessary for the entire management of the vehicle.” Not a few old ladies clung for years to high and ancient electrics (you could get in, upright, with your hat on), and some owners had a taste of belated triumph when they hauled them out again during the gas rationing of World War II.

The Woods Electric was manufactured until 1917, but gasoline power finally swept it from the road, and the company folded up in 1919. The speed was too slow, and the cumbersome batteries too inefficient. Furthermore, gasoline was cheap and electricity, in the amounts required, then too dear.

In the past few years, however, several manufacturers have been experimenting with improved batteries and small generators, and the Cleveland Vehicle Company, in Ohio, is now building a few two-passenger electric cars to sell at $1,650. These have a range of one hundred miles and can go forty miles per hour. Their motive power, electricity, is much cheaper now than highly taxed gasoline. With further improvements, the electric could find as wide public favor in the 1960’s as did the small foreign car in the 50’s. And what this might do to thin out the fumes and smoke in American cities is very pleasant to contemplate.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.