Unless you are an obsessive fan of obscure automotive trivia, or an astute student of obscure aspects of the American automotive industry, Justus B. Entz is most likely an unfamiliar name. And if you are not familiar with the name, it is quite likely that you don’t know about the various automotive manifestations of his creative genius. This includes the Entz, the innovative Owen-Magnetic, and his contributions to the development of the first hybrid automobile that used braking to recharge its batteries, the Woods Dual Power of 1917.
Entz was by trade an electrical engineer. He was also an associate of Thomas Edison. Entz commenced experimentation to develop an automatic electric transmission in the mid 1890s while working as chief engineer for the Electric Storage Battery Company. The Entz transmission was revolutionary. It 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 was fitted into an airspace inside the whirling magnet.
The maiden voyage of the first prototype utilizing a gasoline engine with this electro magnetic transmission ended in disaster. The vehicle burst into flames after an electric arc burned a hole in the gas tank. Undaunted, Entz developed an improved version and entered limited production under the Columbia name. It was an electric taxicab produced by the Pope Manufacturing Company.
As the automotive industry settled into a relative conformity Entz continued to develop his patented electro magnetic transmission in a wide array of variations for diverse applications including installation in the battleship New Mexico. But with the development and improvement of planetary and sliding gear transmissions, the Entz transmission faded from interest. Still, in 1912, Walter Baker acquired the Entz patents. For a brief moment in time this allowed the Baker electric cars to expand its sales.
In the summer of 1914, Entz addressed the meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers. He displayed a revolutionary six-cylinder automobile of his design. And then when he had the attention of his audience, he announced that production would soon commence. The production version, however, did not come from the Entz Motor Car Corporation organized in December of 1913. It was instead produced by a subsidiary of the R.M. Owens & Company as the Owen-Magnetic that was operating under limited license from Walter Baker.
The Owens-Magnetic by all accounts was a well-built automobile. But it was expensive to build, and even though it was relatively trouble free, it required expensive specialized service to repair. And the sales price was exorbitant. The basic sales price was more than $3500. Consolidation with Rach & Lang, manufacturer of electric vehicles, as well as Baker Magnetic and Baker Electric, was desperate attempt to make the company solvent. In the new combine, Baker R & L Company, Inc., produced the motors and transmissions and the R & L plant the coachwork. Raymond Owens of R.M. Owen & Company directed sales and marketing.
By late 1916 the price for an Owen Magnetic had risen to such a point, anemic sales plummeted. A Holbrook bodied touring car sold for $6000 more than ten times the price of a new Ford. Still, there was a limited market for such prestigious automobiles and innovative automobiles. Hoping to further capitalize on impression that the car epitomized innovation and prestige, the company launched an ambitious advertising campaign promoting the “Car of Thousand Speeds.” Then an even more luxurious model priced at $6500 was introduced for the 1918 model year.
The post WWI recession coupled to limited production and an even more restricted market led to suspension of production in 1919. However, this was not the final chapter for the Owens Magnetic or the automotive application of Entz’s electro magnetic transmissions.
Sporadic efforts to revive the company led to the manufacture of a handful of models through 1921. This included several massive seven-passenger limousines on wheelbases that exceeded 150 inches. 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. It was not to be. The company entered into receivership before completion of the order.
Meanwhile, in 1916, the Woods Motor Vehicle Company, the manufacturer of electric vehicles in Chicago since 1899, turned to the Entz transmission in a valiant endeavor to ward off the impending demise of the company. Their new vehicle was a revolutionary gasoline-electric hybrid that was decades ahead of anything else on the road. The result was the Woods Dual Power. The technology of the day, such as battery size and weight, hampered the project. And as a result, the hybrid saw only limited production.
The car was a manifestation of visionary thinking. At speeds below fifteen miles per hour, the four-cylinder gasoline engine idled and the car operated as an electric utilizing braking to assist in the charging of the batteries. At speeds over this, the four-cylinder engine, utilizing the Entz designed transmission, engaged with the result being exceptional fuel economy.
With cessation of production in 1918 and an aborted attempt to revive the concept by Balboa, a company that never progressed beyond the building of a few prototypes in Pomona, California, in 1924, the hybrid idea languished for decades. And the work of Justus Entz, and the automobiles that manifested his independent thinking genius, faded into obscurity as historic footnotes to the evolution of the automobile.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America