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Spark for electric cars is nothing new

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While interest in electric cars, or at least gas-electric hybrids, is growing in response to $4-a-gallon gasoline and concerns over global warming, there's nothing particularly new about battery-powered automobiles.

More than 1,000 of the 4,192 cars produced in America in 1900 were electric, as were more than one-third of all cars in use in New York, Boston and Chicago at that time.

After electric starters replaced the need to crank-start gasoline-powered cars and gas filling stations became more readily available along the nation's growing network of highways, the less powerful, shorter-ranged electric cars began to fade from the nation's automotive scene. One of the last manufacturers of electric cars of the pre-World War II era was the Milburn Wagon Co., which had been one of America's largest wagon and carriage companies before embracing the automobile.

Between 1915 and 1923, the company produced more than 4,000 Milburn Light Electric automobiles, including a 1919 model that Teays Valley collector and restorer Carroll Hutton bought several years ago at an estate sale in the Philippi area. The vehicle is one of several Hutton has on display at the Charleston Boulevard Rod Run & Doo Wop car show, which got underway Thursday in downtown Charleston.

"Today, there are fewer than 30 of these cars on the world registry for Milburn Light Electrics," said Hutton. "At least 10 of those are in museums, so that leaves just a handful that are still active."

The building Hutton's Milburn had been stored in before he bought it had been flooded, leaving the car's interior in need of a major re-do. "I found the materials I needed that fit the period for the car's upholstery in North Carolina, and I had all new bearings and brushes put on the motor. Despite the water, the metal wasn't rusted at all."

The only original pieces missing from the car were a set of genuine Milburn hubcaps, which Hutton obtained in Florida from the great-great-grandsons of George Milburn, founder of the Milburn Wagon Co.

"They had electric cars, too, so I visited them when I was in Florida," Hutton said. "When I mentioned that I couldn't find Milburn hubcaps anywhere, one of them walked over to a cigar box that had eight or 10 of the hubcaps inside, and sold me what I needed."

Hutton also had difficulty finding tires for the vehicles. A specialty tire dealer in Chattanooga, Tenn., eventually located a firm in India that made similar-sized tires used on certain light trucks operating there.

George Milburn, the car company's founder, became a multimillionaire by mass producing wagons and coaches, and by investing in a hydropower dam on the St. Joseph River near Mishawaka, Ind.

By coincidence, Hutton performed an underwater inspection of Milburn's Indiana dam during the 1980s, when his company, Underwater Services Ltd., was hired to do so by a power company.

When railroad officials wouldn't build a spur line to serve his wagon business in Mishawaka, Milburn moved his operation to Toledo, Ohio, where his electric cars were eventually produced.

"These cars originally sold for $1,485, which was about $1,000 more than Fords cost at the time," Hutton said. "It was a high-end car used mainly by urban ladies. They didn't have to worry about getting gas on their frocks, and the car was equipped with flower vases, privacy curtains and wood and brass trim."

Top speed for a Milburn Light Electric is about 15 miles per hour, with a 50-mile range between charges. Its battery, which can be recharged overnight, supplies 70 volts of DC current to its three-horsepower motor.

A tiller bar is used to steer the vehicle and an accelerator bar is used to adjust its speed. The car's cabin is equipped with one bench seat, and a pair of driver-facing, child-size, fold-up jump seats.

Point Pleasant native Karl Probst designed the car before going on to gain fame as the designer of the Jeep, the legendary four-wheel drive vehicle originally produced by American Bantam Car Co. for U.S. Army use during World War II.

"Woodrow Wilson's Secret Service bodyguards used the Milburn Light Electric, and the president drove one around the grounds" at the White House, Hutton said.

"The batteries used in today's hybrid electric cars are many times more efficient than the glass cell batteries with acid and lead plates that were used in this one," Hutton said.

 "They've managed to bring the speed of today's electric cars up to normal highway levels. But I think the electric cars of today will be strictly urban vehicles. They're very small and their range is limited. For an alternative to gasoline and diesel engines, I think compressed natural gas is where the future lies."

Friday's activities at the Charleston Boulevard Rod Run & Doo Wop car show include a brown bag lunch aboard the Spirit of West Virginia sternwheeler at 12:10 p.m., followed by a Capitol Cruise from 2 to 3 p.m. and a sunset cruise from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. A free concert by Rick K and the Allnighters begins at 7:30 p.m., followed at 9 p.m. by a lighted boat parade.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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