May 3, 2011
When a Riker electric car won the $900 first prize at a track race in Narragansett, R.I., in 1896, followed across the finish line by another plug-in entry, Scientific American was amazed. “The announcement of the success of the electric carriages created some surprise, as it has been thought lately that motors using some form of petroleum were best adapted for horseless carriage use,” it reported.
Despite being a pioneer of the plug-in car, the Riker Electric Vehicle Company of Brooklyn, N.Y. (and later, New Jersey), is barely remembered today, partly because it existed for only a very short time. Andrew Riker, the company’s founder and a pioneer in electric motor design when he was only a teenager, sold the company to Colonel Albert Pope, the bicycle and electric-car magnate of Hartford, Conn., for a reported — and quite remarkable if true — $2 million in 1901.
During his brief turn in the spotlight, Riker, who later went to work for Locomobile and became the first president of the Society of Automotive Engineers — and whose family allegedly sold their East River island to New York City in the late 19th century — built and sold more than 1,000 electric cars. He also came close to setting a land-speed record in an electric known as the Riker Torpedo.
A rare, well-preserved 1898 example of a Riker electric, which was actually raced with Mr. Riker at the wheel, is awaiting mechanical restoration at Dragone Classic Motorcars in Westport, Conn.
The car hasn’t run since about 1910, and a lack of appropriate tires has hindered its rejuvenation, said George Dragone, a co-owner of the shop. “We hope to have it on the road by the end of this year,” he said. According to Mr. Dragone, only six Rikers are known to exist, and three of them are in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
“Our car is probably the earliest American electric car in existence, and it’s certainly the earliest one that raced,” said Manny Dragone, George’s brother and partner in the business.
Mr. Riker built the car’s electric motor and 72-volt drivetrain, George Dragone said. The only significant missing part in the car today is the battery pack, which Mr. Dragone said likely consisted of Edison glass-cased batteries.
According to the auto historian Leigh Dorrington, Mr. Riker realized early that internal-combustion engines would probably triumph over electrics. In his diary, Mr. Riker recounts taking the chassis that is in the Dragones’ shop to France for the 1900 Paris Exposition and being dismayed by the sight of gas cars that could reach 60 m.p.h. “He was clearly looking to that future, even then,” Mr. Dorrington said.
In its prime, the 1898 Riker could reportedly reach 40 m.p.h. and travel 50 miles on a charge. “It’s funny, here we are more than 100 years later, and we haven’t advanced all that much,” George Dragone said. Scientific American was impressed in 1896, but it also said that the E.V.’s suitability for long runs still remained to be proved.
And, as many would argue, it still does.
Once up and running, the long-dormant car will remain in the Dragones’ private collection. This piece of automotive history is not for sale.