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.