Here are a few points to ponder. One of the first hybrid automobiles was manufactured more than 100 years ago. Studebaker launched its automotive empire with the production of an electric car designed by Thomas Edison. On September 13, 1899, 69-year-old Henry H Bliss gained a bit of dubious immortality when he became the first pedestrian in the United States to be struck and killed by an automobile. It was an electric taxicab.
An argument could be made that a cornerstone of the American of the auto industry is the electric vehicle. And an argument could also be made that Justus B. Entz played a pivotal role in the development of those electric automobiles.
Unless you are an obsessive automotive trivia buff, or an astute student of obscure aspects of the American automotive industry, Justus B. Entz is most likely an unfamiliar name. It is also a fair bet that you are unfamiliar with the many manifestations of his creative genius. Who today remembers the Entz and the Owen-Magnetic?
Entz was an electrical engineer and an associate of Thomas Edison. He initiated his automotive related experiments in the 1890s with work to develop an automatic electric transmission. At the time he was chief engineer for the Electric Storage Battery Company.
Essentially the Entz transmission eliminated the need for a clutch and instead utilized a generator and horseshoe shaped magnet at the end of the crankshaft. At the end of the driveshaft, an electric motor and armature fitted into airspace inside the whirling magnet.
His first attempt to build a horseless carriage ended in disaster. On the maiden voyage of the prototype that utilizing a gasoline engine and electro magnetic transmission the vehicle burst into flames. An electric arc burned a hole in the gas tank and ignited the fuel. Undaunted he developed several improved prototypes. The final incarnation entered limited production as the Columbia, an electric taxicab, produced by the Pope Manufacturing Company.
Until the advent of the electric starter introduced on the 1912 Cadillac, the electric vehicle proved to be extremely popular, especially in urban settings. Still as early as 1904 it was becoming increasingly evident that the electric automobiles, busses and trucks were being eclipsed by gasoline powered vehicles. Still Entz continued working to improve his electro magnetic transmission.
Its obscurity today is rather surprising. The transmission was used in an array of applications. Perhaps the most notable of these was the battleship USS Nevada that entered service in 1918. The ship remained in operation until 1946. It saw extensive action in WWII.
In 1912 the Entz patents were acquired by Walter Baker, owner of the Baker Electric Company. This company, and Detroit Electric, were the most successful manufacturers of electric vehicles. Detroit Electric would produce automobiles and light delivery vehicles into the mid 1930s.
Meanwhile Entz continued to experiment and perfect the concept. In the summer of 1914 he addressed a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Then he presented an all new type of automobile. The Entz automobile featured a six-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to a refined and improved version of the electro magnetic transmission. He boldly announced that production would commence shortly. As the endeavor was undercapitalized, in late 1913 the Entz Motor Car Corporation provided a subsidiary of the R.M. Owens & Company limited license for production.
By all accounts the Owens-Magnetic was a well-built automobile. And an ambitious advertising campaign that promoted the Owens Magnetic as the “Car of Thousand Speeds” generated a great deal of interest in the unusual automobile. However, the initial sales price of $3,500.00 was problematic. To put this into perspective a new Ford could be purchased for $550. A new Chevrolet was sold for $490.
As a result sales of the Owens Magnetic were anemic. Consolidation of the project with Rauch & Lang, manufacturer of electric vehicles, as well as Baker Electric failed to improve the profitability of the project. Even a dramatically increased sales price failed to make manufacture a profitable venture. The Holbrook bodied touring car sold for $6000 in 1916. Two years later the price had soared to more than $7,000. As a result the car was soon relegated to historic footnote.
The sales price, the post WWI economic recession and a dramatic decline in sales led to suspension of production in 1919. However, this was not the final chapter for the Owens Magnetic or the automotive application of Entz electro magnetic transmissions.
Sporadic efforts to revive the company led to the manufacture of a handful of models through 1921 including several massive seven-passenger limousines. The last gasp came in the form of an order for five hundred vehicles from Crown Limited, an English firm, for the European market as Crown Magnetic but the company entered into receivership before completion of the order.
A venture with Chicago based Woods Motor Vehicle Company is an interesting footnote to the Entz story. This company had successfully been manufacturing electric vehicles since 1899. However, by 1916 the declining market for electric vehicles had pushed the company to the brink of bankruptcy.
But the company valiantly applied all available resources to the development of a revolutionary vehicle, the Woods Dual Power. The car featured an Entz designed electro magnetic transmission. It was an electric car. But it also had a four cylinder gasoline engine.
At speeds below fifteen miles per hour, the four-cylinder gasoline engine idled and the car operated as a battery driven electric. And it utilized braking to assist in the charging of the batteries. At increased speeds over the four-cylinder engine, utilizing the Entz designed transmission, engaged with the result being exceptional fuel economy.
The Woods Dual Power of 1917, a hybrid, had an Achilles heel. As with all electric vehicles of the era, battery technology, dramatically hindered range. Weight was also an issue as it was not uncommon for an electric vehicle to have more than a ton of batteries on board.
It proved to be a short lived endeavor. Production ended in 1918. The idea was revived in 1924. But Entz’s last automotive endeavor, the Balboa, never progressed beyond a few prototypes produced in Pomona, California.
Entz’s automotive endeavors and the Woods Dual Power illustrate an old adage. There is noting new under the sun.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America