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Walter Baker's 1902 Torpedo racing car.

Walter Baker and His Remarkable Electric Racing Cars

By Michael Lamm. Back in 1902-03, Walter C. Baker built three streamlined electric racing cars. Called Torpedos, these all-but-forgotten electrics should be remembered for four good reasons:

Number one and most important, they allowed Walter Baker to become the first man in history to break the 100-mph barrier in a motorcar. That was in 1902.

Second, the Torpedos’ bodies were remarkably streamlined, decades ahead of anything similar.

Third, because Walter Baker regularly crashed his cars, none of his speed marks went into any record books. Even in his own day, he became known as Bad Luck Baker.

And finally, what probably saved his life in all those crashes were plain, simple shoulder harnesses, an idea again much too modern for the times.

  • The lead image shows Walter Baker’s aerodynamic electric Torpedo race car ran 100 mph in 1902 but crashed and didn’t make the record books.

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  • Baker’s tinted goggles were his trademark. By 1906, Baker’s company produced more electric passenger cars than any other American manufacturer.

At the beginning of the 20th century, electrics held most of the world’s land speed records (WLSR). Two electrics in particular kept re-upping the international mark: the French-built Jeantaud and the Belgian Jenatzy. Until 1902, electrics remained infinitely faster than any car with a piston engine.

Walter Baker made his first fortune producing ball bearings for everything from bicycles to locomotives. In 1899, he founded the Baker Motor Vehicle Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, dedicated wholly to manufacturing electrics. In 1901, Baker sold Thomas Edison his (Edison’s) first car. Edison told Baker that electrics, using Edison batteries, would one day put gasoline and steam buggies out of business. And for a time, that became Baker’s mission, another being to go faster than any human on the planet.

Baker, like many early automakers, recognized the publicity value of speed and, thanks partly to his Torpedos, became the nation’s leading manufacturer of electric vehicles by 1906. Even so, he produced only 800 cars that year.

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  • The original Torpedo was quite narrow. Metal discs covered wire wheels and probably added to car’s instability at high speeds.

Tall, wiry, jaunty and with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, Walter Baker decided in 1901 to set the WLSR electrically. He believed that speed would mitigate the common perception that electric cars lacked performance. So he took $10,000 of his personal fortune (roughly $287,000 in today’s money) and began to engineer an electric racer. But unlike most other builders, Baker recognized the value of aerodynamics. He also figured that a successful race car would impress the American public and help sales of his production electrics.

Most motorcars of that era stood tall and open, often with the driver seated above the engine. So the sleek, ultra-low, tapered 1902 electric Torpedo gave quite a jolt to everyone who saw it. The body, made up of thin strips of white pine skinned with oil cloth, stood a mere 48 inches tall—low even by today’s standards. Aerodynamically, the Torpedo was far ahead of its time.

The Torpedo’s driver and passenger sat in tandem on webbed, hammock-like seats, strapped in with four-inch canvas shoulder harnesses. Their heads poked up into an isinglass bubble lined with cork. Baker mounted 11 batteries plus a 14-horsepower Elwell-Parker electric motor behind the seats and ran double chains to the rear wheels.

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  • Brakes were activated with a lever by the person at the rear. The driver steered, and both were held in place by one long shoulder harness.

Two lever-operated, mechanical, external-contracting drum brakes were set alongside the drive sprockets. Steering was by a seven-inch wheel, again unusual at a time when most cars still used tillers. The wheel was connected to the steering arms via steel cables that were held in tension by a spring. The steering system marked the Torpedo’s weak link, as we’ll see in a moment.

On Memorial Day 1902, May 31, the Automobile Club of America held speed trials on the public roads of Staten Island, New York. Baker brought his Torpedo, intending to set records that would overwhelm the manufacturers of steam- and piston-powered machines. Rumor had it that the Torpedo was good for 120 mph, which at that time was roughly double the WLSR. Baker elected to drive the Torpedo himself, accompanied by his mechanic and chief electrician, E.E. Denzer. Both men felt optimistic.

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  • Long Island crash ripped body off chassis, killed one spectator and knocked two people over. Unhurt, Walter Baker and his co-pilot were immediately arrested but were let go because crowds hadn’t respected barriers.

Baker knew the Torpedo couldn’t compete in the mile trials, because his batteries wouldn’t last that long. So he concentrated on the kilometer mark instead. Baker and Denzer covered the kilometer in 36 seconds, running about 70 mph, and they were still accelerating when Baker lost control crossing some trolley tracks. His steering went limp and, as Denzer yanked on the brake lever, the car careened off the road and smashed into the crowd.

Two spectators were knocked flat and one was not injured. A third had his chest gashed open by the Torpedo’s spoked wheels and died instantly, another died later. The car spun around 180 degrees, shed its body, then stopped. Baker and Denzer stepped out of their seats unscathed and were immediately arrested for manslaughter. But the police quickly released them again, because the crowd had crossed protective barricades.

Despite the accident, Baker had set a new record for the flying kilometer, albeit unofficially. The Torpedo beat Jenatzy’s WLSR by about 5 mph, and at that speed, aerodynamics definitely played a role. But due to the accident, the Torpedo’s kilometer mark didn’t enter any record books.

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  •               Chassis details of one of the two Torpedo Kid racing cars, “Motor Age” September, 1903. 

Walter Baker decided to rebuild the Torpedo. He raced it several times in 1902 and ’03. He also constructed two smaller, lighter racers, both called Torpedo Kid. These were single seaters and again stood waist high. They were nicely streamlined, deeply underslung and used 1 1/2 -horse motors from Baker Electric passenger cars. In Oct. 1902, in Cleveland and Detroit, Walter Baker supposedly drove one Torpedo Kid to record speeds, but these also didn’t show up in any books, so the actual figures remain uncertain.

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  • Baker built two more electric racers, called Torpedo Kids. One Kid is shown here in 1903 at a race in Clevland, OH involving various types of cars.

Then, in August 1903, Baker entered both Kids in a special event for electric cars at the Glenville circuit near Cleveland. His co-driver, a man named Chisholm, started on the pole and was doing fine until he got sideswiped by a Waverly Electric. Chisholm crashed and knocked down four spectators. No one was badly hurt, but Walter Baker, who’d been driving the second Kid, decided it was time to hang up his goggles and stop running into people.

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  • Kid stood taller than original Torpedo, was smaller and used a less powerful engine from one of Baker’s passenger cars.

Baker briefly nursed a dream of setting a new WLSR at Ormond Beach, Florida, and stated to the press that one of his Torpedo Kids could easily run 120 mph. He admitted, though, that he wasn’t brave enough to drive the car that fast, and considering the tire technology of 1903, he was probably wise.

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  •                   One of the two Torpedo Kids on a Baker Electric truck, “Horseless Age” August, 1903. 

In 1914-15, Walter Baker took over the R.M. Owen Co., maker of the Owen Magnetic, and merged his own auto firm with another producer of electric cars, Rausch & Lang. Soon afterward, he retired and devoted himself to his two principal hobbies: ham radio and piloting airplanes. He passed away in 1955. Michael Lamm © 2015.

40 responses to “Walter Baker and His Remarkable Electric Racing Cars

  1. It’s amazing that he was able to hit 100 mph with only 14 HP. The Cd must have been off the chart.

    However, my guess is the instability was mostly due to the lifting body design of the chassis. Hitting a railroad track at 100 mph may have caused the car to become airborne long enough to lose control. Interestingly, the airfoil shape of his chassis wasn’t used in aircraft wings until WW1.

    Nonetheless, the guy must have been brilliant. His streamlining idea was astounding for its time.

  2. I thought my all time American hero was John Walter Christie, Walter Baker is second choice as from today.
    David, best article so far ever, congratulations.

  3. Excellent article about an important and under-reported part of automotive history. I have read many articles about Andrew L Riker’s exploits with electric cars and racing. Among other things, he is credited with winning the first AAA sanctioned automobile race on Long Island New York (1901 I think?). In doing so, he beat some of the best steam and gasoline automobiles of the day, driving an electric of his design.
    It is especially interesting to note that Riker was one of the biggest boosters and worlds top engineers for electric automobiles during the 1890s. But as an engineer, he saw the improvements and greater potential in gasoline engine development at the time. He switched sides, going to work for Locomobile as chief engineer to design their switch from steam to gasoline power. Thereby he became one of the chief designers of one of the best built gasoline powered automobiles in the world.
    While I have been aware of Baker’s feats, I rarely ever read anything about them. This is one of the nicest short articles I have ever seen on Baker and his racing.
    Thank you David G and Michael Lamm!

    • The AAA and its Racing Board did not come into existence until March and April 1902, respectively.

      Riker did have the best overall result from a series of three races (of five originally scheduled) held at the Narragansett Park track (Cranston, Rhode Island) during the Rhode Island State Fair in September 1896.

  4. Always believed the first person to achieve 100 mph in a car was Louis Rigolly driving a 13.5 litre Gobron Brille in 1904.

  5. Its amazing but the world is filled with people who should easily be famous but through some fluke of fate go straight into oblivion

  6. Excellent article. Many thanks.

    Perhaps I may be permitted to add a few items. Although Walter Baker designed the 1902 car, it was actually built by the Electric Vehicle Co. of Hartford, Connecticut. Reports of the crash vary, but some say two spectators were killed. Following the arrest of Baker and Denzer on manslaughter charges, they were not released immediately and spent the night in custody. The car never ‘raced’ again, but in 1903 , by which time it was presumably completely repaired, it was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London

  7. “Isinglass bubble?” I take it that was made from the mica type of isinglass and not the food variety? Or is this a generic term used for something else?

  8. Thank you for taking the time and immense effort to put together not just the facts of Walter Baker’s racing feats of his Torpedo, but also the story behind the man. I have a passion to learn anything and everything about Baker’s Electrics, and this story brings my passion to a new focus, not just a quiet, energetic auto, but making SPEED a new entity of interest. I was a lucky child to have lived in his Lakewood home, living in his electric eccentric world, parts of his inventions, hopes, and passions, abiding within the framework of his home. I appreciate the photos of the Torpedo, give me more! Amazing 100+ years later, mankind still has not made an electric car battery any better than his electrics, may Walter & Edison’s souls continue in mankind’s efforts. . .

  9. I am writing a book on these racers and building a replica of the 1st one and I have spent 5 years researching these wonderful cars in the process. I have unearthed 20 plus images of them and even own an original photograph of a torpedo “Kid”. It is highly unlikely that the first Torpedo that crashed at Staten Island ever reached 100 mph. It was probably going in the neighborhood of 81 mph. It most certainly killed 2 people that day. This crash was significant because the death of the spectators surely reversed the trend of racing held on road courses and inspired the trend of closed course racing in America. As a side note I just received a very rare image from an English magazine with an amazing photo of the #1 car after it was painted white and sent to a car show at the Crystal Palace in England. The biggest fallacy about electric cars is related to conspiracy. Big oil had nothing to do with their demise. Who killed the electric car? Answer: The electric starter did. Once people didn’t have to hand crank gas engines even people living in the country without electricity could drive them.

    • The press reported that the car was capable of 100 plus m.p.h. It appears it could only have been done in a short burst. Have you found anything that proves this to be incorrect?

      More reports have shown up since this was posted which point to the speed being between 70-80 mph at the time of the crash.

      • Yes. I have read at least 15 or so accounts of this race. I have read multiple accounts which state that the car was doing 100 kilometers and hour and it’s my best guess that the lack of education on the part of some of the reporters is to blame for this metric being off. This is my favorite car in history but I think it’s only fair to tell the truth here. -Tim

          • Yes. I understand what you meant and I didn’t communicate clearly. It is purely speculative from my reading. Reporters of the era were often wildly inaccurate about other aspects of the car so I am somewhat skeptical. It, of course, is possible. Claims were made about the Torpedo “Kid” racers as well that are a bit questionable. I feel like these are the most progressive race cars in history and I hope my book and replica of the first car will make all top speed debates secondary.-Tim

    • That’s a good point, Tim. We tend to think of the petroleum industry as the ubiquitous industry it is today. At the time of the Baker Electrics gasoline production and distribution was in its infancy as well. Bon chance on your book.

    • Hello Tim,
      I would really like to get in touch with you to find out more about the Torpedos, your book and your replica project.
      Inspired by this articke I just started a little project of my own:
      www dot torpedokid.com/
      Best Regard
      Mikael

    • Tim, I have quite a bit of info on both torpeodos, Do you have the Cleveland Plan Dealer June 1, 1902 article on the S I crash? I can pass it along if interested, would like to see your take on a recreation. I went away from a “pure one” to hopefully gain more usabilty in sanction events

  10. Walter Charles Baker is my distant cousin. Lyman H. Baker married Susan Linkfield & had 4 children. One was Wallter Wells Baker, father of Walter Charles Baker. Another was Sophia A. Baker, who married Charles R. Sargeant, my great, great grandfather. I have letters from Sophia A. Baker Sargeant to their son, my great grandfather, Edwin Lyman Sargeant Sr.

  11. Walter Charles Baker is my distant cousin. Lyman H. Baker married Susan Linkfield & had 4 children. One was Walter Wells Baker, father of Walter Charles Baker. Another was Sophia A. Baker, who married Charles R. Sargeant, my great, great grandfather. I have letters from Sophia A. Baker Sargeant to their son, my great grandfather, Edwin Lyman Sargeant Sr.

    • I have a sincere interest in the family tree of Walter Charles Baker-did he have any children that might have moved out of his Lakewood home to California ? I have a possession from his home + am seeking a direct relative to contact if he/she so interested to have it. There is a large corporation called “Baker Electric” in SandiegoCa.. . . . most curious! Thanks for your interesting note!

      • Hi Carol,

        My father and our family would would be interested in anything from the Lakewood home. There is no relation of Walter C to the “Baker Electric” in San Diego.

        Sincerely Brett Baker

  12. Hey guys! This Baker gentleman is one fascinating character! Could someone set up a Wikipedia page about him and his career?
    There’s a Wiki page about his cars, but amazingly, Walter Baker doesn’t even get a mention on that page!
    This guy deserves a page of his own in history, he was certainly a man of advanced ideas and ability, not to mention fearlessness! I wouldn’t go over 50mph on the tires they built in 1902!

  13. I took a shot at recreation of the kid, well not really more like a modern interpetation, still getting it sorted out. I have quite a bit on of info on both cars. My big question on the Kid is has anyone ever found a 2nd chassis photo? one that shows the rest of the car

  14. I’m new to this site so hoping I have not misjudged your ability to take constructive criticism. My interest is in the numbers, i.e. dates, times and speeds (and whether or not they are records).
    This is a great story but there are some errors in the times and speeds quoted. The km time recorded at Staten Island was 36.2 seconds which equates to 99.4 km/h or 61.8 mph. This is a little less than Jenatzy’s official electric record (65.8 mph) and more than 13 mph slower than Serpollet’s official outright record at the time.
    My limited research has not turned up a credible contemporary source to support the claim that the Torpedo was timed at 70, 80 or 100 mph. Maybe approximately 100 km/h has been read as 100 mph by some, leading to the confusion? I would be happy to be proved wrong but I think that, at best, Baker only set an (unofficial?) American record for electric vehicles on May 31, 1902.
    Also Baker’s mechanic was Charles E. Denzer, so “E. E. Denzer” is presumably a typo?
    [Source: Automobile Topics, June 7, 1902, pages 327-330 and 341-346.]

    • No constructive criticism is welcome, but not when people do not use their real name – As you can see from the large amounts of comments on this post, the press probably embellished the facts to sell newspapers. If you can come up with speeds times etc. about this run please send them in.

  15. On pages 344-345 of Automobile Topics there is an eye witness account of the accident on Staten Island:

    “The writer was standing in a Locomobile touring car south of the trolley car tracks, almost immediately opposite the scene of the accident, when the Baker electric machine was seen approaching on the opposite side of the trolley crossing. The machine was then somewhat off the middle of the road, to the left, but heading slightly to the right (west). It crossed the tracks approximately at right angles and immediately swerved more to the right, for a fraction of a second heading almost straight for the observer. Then suddenly it swerved in a gentle curve to the left, describing possibly an angle of 10 to 15 degrees, leaving the roadbed and apparently struck a stump of a tree close to the edge of the road, for the front end of the machine was plainly seen to rise into the air at a considerable angle, and after a moment of inconceivable shortness the rear end was also lifted from the ground, though not so high, the machine seemingly shooting through space for a distance of about 10 feet, when the front end came down with something of a crash, raising a cloud of dust which partly concealed it from the observer’s sight. When it was afterwards seen that the wrecked machine was lying with the front end toward the trolley tracks, the conclusion seemed inevitable that it must have slewed completely around when its front end struck the ground, for it did not turn around while it was plainly visible to the writer.”

    A photograph of the Torpedo is captioned:
    “BAKER SPEED MACHINE 20 SECONDS BEFORE ITS DESTRUCTION.
    “Going at the Rate of 80 Miles per Hour— Made Kilometer in 36 1-5 Seconds.”

    In the table of results on page 346 the Baker kilometer time is given as 36 1/5 seconds (the mile is, bluntly, “Wrecked”), whilst the fastest kilometer is credited to Britton and Levy in 34 2/5 seconds.

    Sorry that you prefer contributions only from people who give their real name. I will therefore refrain from further comments, although I would be happy to exchange information via email with anyone seriously researching this topic.

    Finally, I note that links to other sites are not allowed; otherwise I could have indicated where to find Automobile Topics on line. However, it’s not particularly difficult using a well-known search engine.

  16. The notion that oil companies had no bearing on the scrapping of the electric car is a falacy, if you update your information you will find that the monitory system along with the greed of oil companies have held back the production of batteries that would give the equivilent of at least 500 miles per charge. The oil companies were responsible for prohibition in the USA to prevent cars from burning alcohol , they even prevented Ford company from making cars that run on alcohol

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