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Oregon Trails: Electric Cars

August 12, 2011

By Ron Brown

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — For years now, scientists and engineers have tried to develop a car that can run on electricity with the same power, range and reliability as gas and diesel-fueled vehicles.

A hundred years or more ago, electric cars were competing just fine with steam and gas horseless carriages of the day. Some of those ancient vehicles remain to remind us just how far we have…or have not… Come in the effort to have emission-free transportation.

Rick Riker is a Grants Pass city councilman and a former Josephine county planner. He is also the grandson of one of America’s pioneer automotive developers and engineers, Andrew Riker. One of the prize possessions in his family is this single seat 1896 Riker electric runabout, which, as you can see, still runs well. The car was a basket case on display at the original Harrah auto museum near Reno, and then was sold to a man in Arizona who restored it in the early 1980’s. Riker’s parents bought it later at auction, and it’s been back in the family ever since.

Riker has shown the little electric at some car shows, but says driving it in parades is a little un-nerving considering the primitive braking system on the car.

One of the big challenges Riker had when he got the car was finding eight-volt batteries. The car runs on 40 volts, using five 8-volt batteries connected in series. But a local battery distributor just happened to have them. They are often used to power tractors.

Today electric cars like this Nissan leaf have high tech batteries that can drive the car for a hundred miles at highway speeds without a re-charge. The Riker could go up to 20 miles an hour on the roads of the day and has a range of about 30 miles. These cars were very popular with women and taxi companies in the cities. There you could find chargers. Today it’s the same problem, having enough places to keep your car charged to be able to drive very far.

Rick says, “My dad said that my granddad mentioned that if there was a battery station on every corner, that electric cars would’ve survived. But he also–my grandfather–foresaw that gasoline was the way to go and that’s why he sold his electric car business. And what he envisioned that you would actually swap your batteries out. You pull into a gas station and then change the batteries out and then drive off.”

Andrew Riker’s foundation was in electric motor development, but when he sold his company he embraced the new gas engine technology fully. However, electric cars stayed around in declining numbers well on into the 1920’s. And now they’re trying to make a comeback, using new materials and new technology.

When Andrew Riker sold out in 1901, after about five years of making electric vehicles, many people think that the most valuable part of the sale was really the patents that went along and the engineering that went into his vehicles.

In all, Riker built and sold 299 cars. Andrew Riker was hired by loco-mobile to be their chief engineer in 1902, to develop gas engines. He was also the first president of the Society of Automotive Engineers and died in 1930. There have been about a hundred different electric carmakers in the U.S. in the last hundred years, including Studebaker, Millburn, Baker, Waverly, and Detroit.