SOUTH BEND ― What would the late JM Studebaker, founder of the eventual Studebaker car manufacturer, say about the growth of electric vehicles today?
Well, in fact, it was in the early few years of the 1900s when he said this about electricity’s competitor: “Gas-powered cars are clumsy, dangerous, noisy brutes that stink to high heaven and break down at the worst possible moments.”
But you have to understand that, as cars were still in their infancy, it was unclear as to which fuel would power them.
Gas and electricity seemed to be equal contenders. Steam had already moved trains and tractors for decades. And cities had grown tired of horse dung and horse corpses that had become health hazards.
The century-plus story of how we got to the latest age of e-cars comes to life in an exhibit at the Studebaker National Museum through Oct. 2, “Charged: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Electric Vehicles.”
Among eight vehicles on display, the 1911 Studebaker Model 17-B Electric Coupe is black, resembling the shape of a horse carriage but with smaller wheels, sliding windows and golden lamps ― able to go 70 miles and hit 21 mph. This one had belonged to a member of the Studebaker family in Ohio.
Studebaker made its first electric car in 1902 and its first gas-powered car in 1904, museum archivist Andrew Beckman says.
Electric cars were easier to operate and further along in their reliability, he explains. It was difficult to find charging stations, but gasoline had that problem, too. There’s a charging station here from 1916, a thick-wired black box that almost reaches a person’s waist, plus a 1916 map of dozens of charging stations in Chicago.
A key spark to gas power’s growth, Beckman says, was the self-starting engine, which resolved the many complaints about the more difficult and less reliable hand crank.
Studebaker stopped making electric cars in 1912, when a total of 33,842 electric vehicles were registered in the US They faded from US markets in the following decade, then crept back in the 1950s, though, at that point, Beckman says, they were on the “fringe.” The red 1959 Henney Kilowatt on the floor is a sporty looking, snub-nosed sedan with four doors ― essentially, an electric Renault Dauphine ― one of 47 made. It wasn’t a commercial success, he says, but it was considered the first “modern” electric car in range and performance.
The 1970s brought the fuel crisis, the green movement and a search for alternatives. The 1975 Sebring Vanguard CitiCar was a two-seater that the Club Car golf cart had inspired, with small wheels, a pudgy, triangular profile and sharp edges. You may come up with your own personal description for this orange creation, but don’t laugh too hard – a total of 4,444 of them were made. They could go 30 mph and last up to 40 miles.
The sporty GM/Saturn EV1 from 1990 here represents the debut of the “Impact” concept cars, with its sleek aerodynamics. To which, Beckman says, “Anything you can do to reduce drag extends your range.”
The engine is actually missing from the silver model on display.
A 2008 Tesla Roadster here is a deep red high-performance sportscar with a convertible roof, built on a Lotus Elise chassis. The car’s owner in Nebraska, who placed a large magnetized sign on the door reading “battery power = no gas,” had driven it to South Bend through ice, snow and salt in January. It’s clean now.
“It took us a while to track down an original series,” Beckman says of this, No. 60 off the line.
The exhibit finishes with the 2022 Class 1 Urban Delivery Van from the company Electric Last Mile Solutions, a compact cargo van that was planned to be made in the former AM General Hummer H2 plant in Mishawaka. With a price tag of $28,000, it was poised to be the first all-electric vehicle made in its class for commercial fleets. But Beckman says the museum had received this silver specimen well before news broke in June that the company had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Neither electricity nor the van were to blame.
ELMS had seen its stock plummet early in the year after a leadership shakeup. As The Tribune had reported, a special committee of the company’s board found that some executives had inappropriately purchased equity in the company before ELMS announced an agreement to go public in December 2020. The circumstances made it too hard to attract a new auditor and extra funding , the company said in a release at the time.
June 2022 news:Electric van maker files for bankruptcy
What’s next for the e-car evolution? A touch screen at the exhibit leads you to four brief videos by Purdue University and others about such topics as next-generation batteries and the state of the United States’ charging networks.
This is the first time that the museum has brought back touch-screen videos since the pandemic.
Visitors emerge surprised by what they’ve learned in the exhibit.
“People say they had no idea Studebaker produced electric cars over a century ago,” Beckman says.
• Que: “Charged: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Electric Vehicles”
• Where: Studebaker National Museum, 201 Chapin St., South Bend
• When: through Oct. 2
• Cost: $11-$7
• Hours: 10 am to 5 pm Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 pm Sundays
• Talk about electric vehicles: Leah Thill, the senior environmental planner for the Michiana Area Council of Governments, will talk about “The Future is Here: Electric Vehicles in Michiana and Beyond” from 6 to 8:30 pm Aug. 30 at the Studebaker National Museum. She’ll also talk about finding public charging stations, federal tax credits, local utility incentives and upcoming car models. Guests from the Michiana Electric Vehicle Drivers Network will share stories of switching to electric. Doors will open at 6 pm, and the museum will stay open an hour after the talk so that participants can explore the exhibits. Cost is $2 per person.
• For more information: Call 574-235-9714 or 888-391-5600 or visit studebakermuseum.org.