“Electric” Baker’s Torpedo Racers


Editor’s note: Michael Lamm, whose book with Dave Holls,  A Century of Automotive Style, is the standard reference on the history of car design in America (and a pretty good general history of the industry as well), has graciously provided Cars In Depth with his piece about electric car pioneer Walter “Electric” Baker’s attempts to set land speed records in an electrically powered car over a century ago.

Back in 1902-03, Walter C. Baker built three streamlined electric racing cars. Called “Torpedoes,” these all-but-forgotten electrics should be remembered for four good reasons: 1) They allowed Walter Baker to become the first man in history to break the 100-mph barrier in a motorcar; 2) the Torpedoes’ bodies were remarkably streamlined, decades ahead of anything similar; 3) because Walter Baker regularly crashed his cars, none of his speed marks went into the record books. Even in his own day, he became known as “Bad Luck Baker;” and 4) what probably saved his life in all those crashes were plain, simple shoulder harnesses, an idea again much too modern for the times.

Driver and brakeman sat in tandem in original Torpedo. Both wore shoulder harnesses. Batteries and 14-bhp electric motor stood in rear.

At the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars held the world land speed record (WLSR). Two electrics in particular kept re-upping the international mark: the French-built Jeantaud and the Belgian Jenatzy. Until 1902, electrics remained considerably faster than piston-engined cars. Tall, wiry, with a jaunty mustache and tinted goggles, Walter Baker decided in 1901 to go after the WLSR electrically. He believed that speed would mitigate the common (and correct) perception that electric cars lacked endurance. So he took $10,000 of his own money (roughly $257,000 today) and began to lay out an electric racer. But unlike other builders, Baker recognized the value of aerodynamics. He also figured that a sleek, fast racer would impress the American buying public.

The two Torpedo Kids were smaller and painted white, as opposed to the original Baker Torpedo of 1902 (below). All three cars broke speed records, but only unofficially.
Baker Torpedo set world land speed record on Staten Island in 1902, then crashed soon after this picture was taken.

The Torpedo’s driver and passenger sat in tandem on webbed, hammock-like seats, strapped in with four-inch canvas shoulder harnesses. Their heads poked up into an isinglass bubble surrounded by a cork crashpad. Baker mounted 11 batteries plus a 14-horsepower Elwell-Parker electric motor behind the seats and ran double chains to the rear axle. On Memorial Day 1902, May 31, the Automobile Club of America held speed trials on the streets of Staten Island, N.Y. Baker intended the Torpedo to set records that would overwhelm the makers of steam- and piston-powered machines. Rumor had it that the Torpedo was good for 120 mph, which at that time was roughly double the WLSR.

Starting lineup in Cleveland contrasts streamlined Torpedo Kid (999) with typical racers of 1903. That’s the Oldsmobile Pirate (a replica of which is in the General Motors Heritage Center) at right.

Baker chose to drive the Torpedo himself. His passenger and brakeman was the company’s chief mechanic and electrician, E.E. Denzer. Baker and Denzer covered the flying kilometer in 16 seconds, running exactly 100 mph, and they were still accelerating when Baker lost control crossing a set of trolley tracks. His steering went limp and, as Denzer yanked the brake lever, the car left the road and smashed sideways into the crowd. Two spectators were knocked flat but not injured. A third died instantly. The Torpedo spun 180 degrees, then stopped. Baker and Denzer stepped out unscathed and were immediately arrested for manslaughter. But the police released them just as quickly, because the crowd had crossed protective barricades. Despite the accident, Baker had set a new record for the flying kilometer, albeit unofficially. The Torpedo beat Jenatzy’s WLSR by nearly 35 mph, and at that speed, aerodynamics definitely played a role. But due to the accident, the Torpedo’s kilometer mark didn’t enter the record books.

Walter C. Baker gives the V-for-Victory sign from one of his Torpedo Kids. He continued to build a line of successful electric passenger cars, but as electrics and steamers lost favor, his company merged with Rauch & Lang, becoming Baker-Raulang, which merged with Otis Elevator in 1954. Baker retired in 1915, a wealthy man.

In 1902, Walter Baker built two smaller, lighter racers, both called “Torpedo Kid.” These were single seaters and again stood waist high. Streamlined and low, they used ¾-horse motors from Baker Electric passenger cars. In Oct. 1902, in Cleveland and Detroit, Walter Baker supposedly drove one Torpedo Kid to record speeds, but these again were unofficial, so the actual figures remain uncertain. Then, in Aug. 1903, Baker entered both Kids in a special event for electric cars near Cleveland. A man named Chisholm drove one of the Kids. He started on the pole and was doing fine until he got sideswiped by a Waverly Electric. Chisholm crashed and knocked down four spectators. No one was badly hurt, but Walter Baker, who’d been driving the second Kid, decided to hang up his goggles and stop running into people. In 1915, Walter Baker merged his company with another manufacturer of electric cars, Rauch & Lang, and then retired from business to devote himself to his hobbies: ham radio and piloting airplanes. He passed away in 1955.
-Michael Lamm, Courtesy Ironstone Concours d’Elegance

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