The Automobile in Common Use

McClure’s Magazine/July, 1899


What it Costs – How it is Operated – What it Will Do

A French statistician has given some significant figures as to the enormous increase of the horse-slaughtering industry in Paris during the past two years, and he lays it largely to the thousands of motor vehicles which are making the horse more valuable for ragouts than for racing. The august French Academy has paused in its consideration of literature and art, to take cognizance of the motor vehicle, and has bestowed upon it the formal name of “automobile,” which it expects the entire world to adopt. The French law has quietly absorbed its unfamiliar terms, and has decreed that every vehicle must be registered in its own commune, the same as a horse and carriage; it has laid down formal articles for the regulation of builders and operators, and provided for races and speed limits. The French Minister of War has numbered and described every vehicle in the republic, and has quietly arranged to seize them all for military purposes when France shall go to war. In this way the motor vehicle in France has assumed the settled importance of a governmental institution, as well as a great business industry.

In general, France leads in gasoline vehicles, and England in steam vehicles, while America, as was to be expected, is far in the lead in electrical conveyances of all kinds. Belgium and Germany, and to some extent Austria, are also experimenting with more or less success, but no such progress has been made in these countries as in France. Spain rubbed its eyes last spring at the sight of its first motor vehicle, which rolled through Madrid with half a dozen little policemen careering after it. Indeed, the new industry is everywhere awakening the most extraordinary interest among all classes of people.

And yet the great public is far from feeling familiar with the motor vehicle. The prospective buyer, and there are many thousands of him in America, is at once confronted with the bewildering variety of models which the manufacturers place before him. He discovers that there are the most pronounced variations in price, cost of maintenance, speed, ease of management, and general efficiency.

It was with the idea of clearing up this confusion and giving some exact conception of what the motor vehicle of today really is, what it can do, what it costs, and what may be expected of it in the future, that I visited and talked with a number of the most prominent American manufacturers.

In a general way, it may be said that the best modern motor vehicle, whatever its propelling power, is practically noiseless and odorless and nearly free from vibrations. It is still heavy and clumsy in appearance, although it is lighter than the present means of conveyance when the weight of the horse or horses is counted in with the carriage. And invention will soon lighten it still further. It cannot possibly explode. It will climb all ordinary hills, and on the level it will give all speeds from two miles an hour up to twenty or more. Its mechanism has been made so simple that any one can learn to manage it in an hour or two. And yet it is mechanism; and intelligence, coolness, and caution are required to manage a motor vehicle in a crowded street. The operator must combine the intelligence of the driver with that of the horse, and he does not appreciate the almost human sagacity of that despised animal until he has tried to steer a motor vehicle down Fifth Avenue on a sunny afternoon. Six different motive powers are now actually employed in this country: electricity, gasoline, steam, compressed air, carbonic acid gas, and alcohol. The first three of these have been practically applied with great success; all the others are more or less in the experimental stage.

The electric vehicle, which has had its most successful development in this country, has its well-defined advantages and disadvantages. It is simpler in construction and more easily managed than any other vehicle: one manufacturer calls it “fool proof.” It is wholly without odor or vibrations and practically noiseless. It will make any permissible rate of speed, and climb any hill up to a twenty per cent, grade. On the other hand, it is immensely heavy, owing to the use of storage batteries; it can run only a limited distance without recharging, and it requires a moderately smooth road. In cost it is the most expensive of all vehicles. And yet for city use, where a constant supply of electricity can be had, electrical cabs, carriages, and delivery wagons have demonstrated their remarkable practicability.

The vital feature of the electric vehicle is the storage battery, which weighs from 500 to 1,500 pounds, the entire weight of the vehicles varying from about 900 to 4,000 pounds. A phaeton for ordinary use in carrying two people will weigh upwards of a ton, with a battery of 900 pounds. This immense weight requires exceedingly rigid construction and high-grade, expensive tires. The electrical current is easily controlled by means of a lever under the hand of the driver, the propelling machinery being comparatively simple. When the battery is nearly empty, it may be recharged at any electric lighting station by the insertion of a plug, the time required varying from two to three hours. Or, if the owner prefers, he can own his own charging plant and generate his own electricity; it will cost him from $500 to $700. The current not only operates the vehicle, but it lights the lamps, rings the gong, and in cabs and broughams actuates a push-button arrangement for communication between passenger and driver. The limit of travel without recharging is from twenty to thirty miles. Mr. C. E. Woods, a leading manufacturer, gives the cost of maintenance of storage batteries per year as varying from $50 for light buggies to $300 for heavy omnibuses, the entire cost of operation being from three-quarters of a cent to four cents a mile. A good electric carriage for family use cannot be obtained for much less than $2,000, although one or two manufacturers advertise runabouts and buggies at from $750 to $1,500. An omnibus costs from $3,000 to $4,000.

New York cabs will run twenty miles without recharging. But it is not at all infrequent for a new man to have his vehicle stop suddenly and most unexpectedly; the current deserts him before he knows it. He must let the central office know at once, and the ambulance cab comes spinning out, hooks to the helpless vehicle, and drags it in to the charging station. The company expects soon to have ten charging stations in operation in various parts of the city, so that a cab will never have far to go for a new charge of electricity. Indeed, all the manufacturers of electrical vehicles speak with confidence of the day when the whole of the United States will be as thoroughly sprinkled with electric charging stations as it is today with bicycle roadhouses. One manufacturer has already issued lists of hundreds of central stations throughout New England, New York, and other Eastern States where automobiles may be provided with power. It is not hard to imagine what a country touring station will be like on a sunny summer afternoon some five or ten years hence. Long rows of vehicles will stand backed up comfortably to the charging bars, each with its electric plug filling the battery with power. The owners will be lolling at the tables on the verandas of the nearby roadhouse. Men with repair kits will bustle about, tightening up a nut here, oiling this bearing, and regulating that gear. From a long rubber tube compressed air will be hissing into pneumatic tires. There will also be many gasoline carts and road-wagons and tricycles, and they, too, will need repairs and pumping, and their owners will employ themselves busily in filling their little tin cans with gasoline, recharging their tanks, refilling the water jackets, and looking to the working of their sparking devices. And then there will be boys selling peanuts, arnica, and court-plasters, and undoubtedly a cynical old farmer or two with a pair of ambling mares to carry home such of these newfangled vehicles as may become hopelessly indisposed. Add to this bustling assembly of amateur “self-propellers” a host of bicycle riders—for there will doubtless be as many bicycles in those days as ever—and it will be a sight to awaken every serious-minded horse to an uneasy consideration of his future.

Nor is this dream so far from being a picture of actual conditions. In Belgium a company has recently been formed to establish electric posting stations. Its promoters plan to have a bar and restaurant connected with the charging-plant, a regular medical attendant, and an expert mechanic who will know how to remedy all the ills of motor vehicles. In the larger cities the time must soon come when there will be coin in the slot “hydrants” for electricity at many public places from which owners of vehicles may charge their batteries while they wait.

The new electric cabs are unquestionably immensely popular as fashionable conveyances. A number of the wealthy people of New York, including Mr. Frank Gould, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mr. O. H. P. Belmont, and Mr. Richard McCurdy, have a cab or brougham and driver constantly on call at the home station of the company, for which they pay at the rate of $180 a month. Several prominent physicians are similarly provided, motor vehicles being especially adapted to the varied necessities of a physician’s practice. A motor vehicle is always ready at a moment’s notice—it does not have to be harnessed. It can work twenty-four hours a day. When it is left in the street outside, the doctor takes with him a little brass plug, or key, without which the vehicle cannot run away or be moved or stolen. And, moreover, it is swifter by half than the ordinary means of locomotion, so that in emergency cases it may mean the saving of a life. One New York physician recently put an electric cab to a most extraordinary use. His patient had a broken arm, and he wished to photograph the fracture with Roentgen rays, but there was no source of electricity available in the residence of the patient. So he made a connection with the battery in his cab, which stood at the door, the rays were promptly applied, and the injury was located.

–Ray Stannard Baker

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