Steam, Gas, Electric Cars at the Turn of the Century

October, 2012 -- Annually, Hershey, Pennsylvania hosts one of the oldest and most well-known vintage car shows in the nation. Coinciding with this multi-day car show, which brings visitors from across the globe each fall, RM Auctions holds a two-day auction event that offers a wide range of classic cars that chronicle the history of the automobile. In addition to crowd pleasers, such as Packards, Duesenbergs, and early Lincolns, they also have vehicles that were built in the early stages of automobile propulsion.


When transitioning from animal-powered transportation to horseless carriages, three methods were being considered: steam, electricity, and gas. Steam power seemed like a good candidate, given its successful use in trains and ships of the time. Also, the relatively new power source, electricity, appeared to be a feasible option. Of course, inventors were also working with internal combustion engines, but they were in their infancy. So, the race was on to determine which technology would become the power source of choice. We've had a unique opportunity to see all three designs at RM. Here are some prime examples of these unique vehicles and their selling prices.


Steam Power

1909 Stanley Model R Roadster


Two vintage automobiles, the 1900 Milwaukee Steam Runabout and the 1909 Stanley Model R Roadster were prime examples of steam powered cars of the period.


The Stanley Model R, more commonly called the Stanley Steamer, was one of the most successful steam powered cars ever produced. The four-passenger Model R Roadster at the RM Auction was painted red, had yellow pin striping, and brass accessories. Remarkably, in 1996, this 20 hp vehicle was driven from Anchorage, Alaska to Bar Harbor, Maine -- a distance of 5,340 miles. The selling price was $121,000.


The 1900 Milwaukee was a 6 hp two-seater, open-air carriage vehicle. Since these cars were manufactured prior to the implementation of the steering wheel, a tiller was used to control steering. Advertised as fun to drive and fairly uncomplicated to operate, it sold for $44,000.


Electric Power

1912 Baker Electric Model W Runabout


Two quiet-as-a-whisper representatives of early electric power, the 1906 Pope-Waverly Runabout and the 1912 Baker Model W Runabout, were driven across the stage at RM's auction in Hershey.


The two-seater Pope-Waverly was painted dark green, with cream-colored running gear and black leather fenders. This 3 hp plug-in electric car was advertised as having been driven on a regular basis. The selling price was $60,500.


The Baker Motor Vehicle Company was a leader in electric car production in the early 1900s. Interestingly, company records indicate Thomas Edison purchased his first car from Baker. The 1912 Runabout model at the RM auction incorporated the latest technology of the period, and has the distinction of being in the Guinness World of Records. In 1995, the 18 hp Baker became the first electric vehicle driven from coast to coast, covering a distance of 3,304 miles. This cream trimmed, midnight blue two-seater sold for $85,250.


Gas Power

1903 Ford Model A Tonneau


The 1903 Ford Model A Tonneau was an example of a turn-of-the-century vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Featured at the RM auction, the two-cylinder, 8 hp car is recognized as the oldest known car sold by the Ford Motor Company. This piece of automotive history was painted red, had black fenders, and sported white tires. Its selling price was $264,000.


And the Winner is Gas Power?


The production of steam-powered cars continued into the early '30s. However, several factors led to their demise, such as the cost to operate, need to replenish water on a frequent basis, and the comparatively longer startup time.


Early electric cars, popular because of easy startup and quiet engines, outsold other forms of propulsion in 1899 and 1900. Although limited production of electric-powered public transportation vehicles continued after 1941, its use for passenger cars had ended by that time. The most significant factor that prevented electric cars from being viable for passenger transportation was the limited distance the cars could be driven before needing to be recharged.


With greater mobility and lower costs, internal combustion engines went on to be the motor of choice. Although gas-powered engines may have won the initial competition, will they remain on top? A new generation of electric car designs are already proving to be a popular alternative in some market segments. With the renewed challenge from electric cars, it may turn out that vehicles like the Pope-Waverly and Baker were just ahead of their time, and that technology only needed to catch up with these early pioneers.