Curbside Classic: 1897 Riker Electric – Back To The Future-

This is probably the oldest car we’re likely to see at CC, and so it’s also not surprising that it’s an electric. And quite a nifty one at that. This little city scooter is remarkable well engineered, with some really nice details. It’s a highly functional way to maximize the electric car’s inherent limitations, at least until very recently. This would have been a perfect way for a doctor to visit patients or such, in the very compact towns and cities of the late 19th century. In other words, a quiet, clean horseless buggy without a cantankerous primitive gasoline engine. No wonder electrics outsold gas cars in the earliest days. And four wheel coil suspension! A closer look reveals a few other interesting details.

We got a very thorough explanation of this vehicle from no less than the builder’s grandson. Andrew Riker (full history here) was a true pioneer of the electric vehicle, building his first in 1894, and quickly becoming one of the largest producers of the genre. Everything from little runabouts like this

to very large trucks were built at the Riker plant.

Rikers went racing too, and in 1901, his stripped-down Torpedo set a world record for electric cars, 57.1 mph, which stood for over a decade. But Riker saw the writing on the wall, sold out, and joined Locomobile in 1902, where he designed gasoline engines cars.

The lead-acid batteries (now golf cart 6 volts) are in the two compartments, in front and rear. Top speed was around 15- 20 mph, and range up to 50 miles was claimed, but more realistically 30 – 40 miles. Quite acceptable in the urban environment of the time. Here’s the motor, attached to a reduction gear on the rear axle. Differential? Not in the usual sense, anyway. Maybe one of the wheels has an over-run pawl. Or maybe one wheel drive.

Here we see the other side, and what a nicely detailed suspension this has, with a truss to strengthen the main rear trailing arm. Riker built his first car out of some bicycles, and this one shows the use of bicycle frame tubing, reinforced with this truss. Pretty slick.

Up until now, the electric vehicle really has only made sense in this type of configuration, a very lightweight urban run-about, accepting the inherent limitations of speed and range. Here is a NEVCO Gizmo, which was built right here in Eugene some ten years or more ago. Same basic idea: a few lead acid batteries, and room for one person. There’s still a few running around here.