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Cleveland Was the Original Motor City

Before Tesla and Silicon Valley, there were Baker Motors and Cleveland

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Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Cars gave us unprecedented mobility, so it’s fitting that the heart of the auto industry is constantly on the move. For a time the industry’s lifeblood pulsed from Detroit, and the city rose (and fell) spectacularly based on the sector’s prospects. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, accrued enough power to rename its hometown during its ascent. In 10 years’ time, the automotive nexus may relocate to Silicon Valley, where tech giants are investing heavily in driverless vehicles.

But there’s a forgotten place in the long history of automotive industry towns: Cleveland. In the early 20th century, Cleveland was home to more than 30 car factories, employing thousands of workers as startups vied to propel the burgeoning technology into the mainstream. It was the original Motor City. And one of its most ambitious innovators was Baker Motor Vehicle Company, which helped ignite the quixotic, century-long quest to convince the American public to buy electric cars.

The company was launched in 1898 by Walter Baker, a young entrepreneur who’d grown up in Cleveland and already owned a firm that produced parts for horse-drawn carriages and automobiles. Baker realized that the car was the technology of the future — specifically electric cars, which were quieter and more reliable than gasoline-powered vehicles, which relied on internal combustion engines. Cleveland, already a growing industrial city, was the perfect place to build the vehicles. “Cleveland just became a mecca for mechanics, for people who were entrepreneurs in terms of industrial development,” says Ed Garten, the vice president of the Society for Automotive Historians. “The automobile industry just sort of grew and grew there.”

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The company produced a two-person electric buggy in 1899 with 10 battery cells and a three-quarters-horsepower motor. Thomas Edison was one of the first customers. Later, when the White House switched from horse-and-carriage caravans to automobiles, President William Howard Taft chose a Baker Electric. Contemporary car freak Jay Leno has one, and it runs so quietly that deer sometimes approach it as he’s driving.

Despite these famous male fans, Baker vehicles — and electric cars in general — were largely marketed toward city women. Gasoline-powered vehicles of the time had to have their engines cranked, which was a messy and labor-intensive affair. Electric vehicles could self-start the way modern cars do. “Women enjoy driving an electric car as graceful and easily handled as the Baker,” reads one 1911 ad. In another, a young girl implores her father to buy her a Baker because it’s a “beauty” and runs “as still as a mouse.”

The vehicles were also popular among doctors, according to Garten. Bakers were better than gas-powered cars at handling adverse weather conditions such as rain and snow, so they proved useful for physicians making house calls. They also started more reliably, an important trait for a person trying to drive to a medical emergency.

But above all, Baker Electrics were cars for the wealthy. The original model cost $850 (about $23,000 in today’s dollars), but later, more luxurious makes ran for more than four times that cost, according to Robert Ebert, an economics professor at Baldwin Wallace University. Rauch & Lang, a competing electric automaker targeting a similar demographic, could spend 90 days making a single car. “They put a dozen coats of paint on them and they’d let them sit, and they were highly luxurious and handcrafted,” Ebert says. “Most of us could never dream of having a living room that was as nice as the inside of those electric cars.”

Selling expensive, slow cars that needed hours to recharge their batteries was, for a time, a booming business. “If you look at the last half of the 1890s … you could probably find as many articles saying that the electric car would be the future as said that the gasoline car would be the future,” Ebert says. “There were periods there where they were running neck-and-neck in terms of how many were being built in the United States.”

Then the Model T happened. Henry Ford’s mass-produced car launched in 1908 at a price point near the original Baker, but he quickly drove costs down thanks to advancements in assembly-line production. Eventually a Model T cost just $260. It was loud, required a hand crank to get going, and had to be driven up steep hills backward because of the weakness of its forward gears — but it also democratized car travel in a way that electric vehicles never could. In 1904, there were about 20,000 gas-powered or steam-powered automobiles produced in the United States and 1,400 electric ones, according to the Census Bureau. By 1919, gas- and steam-powered cars (but overwhelmingly gas) were being produced at a clip of 1.7 million per year. Just 3,000 electric cars were made that year.

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Getty Images

As the market share for electric vehicles dwindled, Baker merged with rival Rauch & Lang in 1915, but the combined companies still couldn’t convince people to switch from their new gas-powered vehicles to electric ones. The Baker name was retired from car models in the merger, and Rauch & Lang stopped producing passenger electric vehicles altogether by the late 1920s.

Such was the arc for many a Cleveland automaker. While Ford faced off against ascendant rivals General Motors and Chrysler in Detroit, Cleveland’s car companies all withered away (or were acquired by the Big Three), as did hundreds of others across the country. In the early 1900s there were more than 300 automakers across the United States, according to Garten. After the Great Depression, there were about a dozen.

In many ways, the issues that plagued Baker still haunt electric cars today. The vehicles cost way more than their gas-guzzling counterparts. Finding a charging station is a hassle. And big gasoline-powered cars and trucks retain the same masculine allure that historians say helped them win out over electrics in the first place. (Electric cars are for “Chicks, Wusses, Geeks and Emo-Boys,” one Huffington Post headline trolls.) In 2015, electric vehicles made up 1.4 percent of the U.S. passenger car market, according to data from Motor Intelligence and Inside EVs. That’s a smaller market share than the cars had in 1909.

Still, historians believe that the future for electric cars is bright. Both Ebert and Garten agreed that Tesla’s strategy of selling high-end, state-of-the-art vehicles to the wealthy mirrors Baker’s methods. But thanks to the fast-falling cost of batteries, Tesla and traditional automakers like Chevrolet are planning to introduce electric cars at mass-market prices in the near future.

When (or if) electric vehicles finally achieve their breakthrough, Cleveland will be part of their origin story. This year the Society of Automotive Historians — composed of academics and amateur car nuts who have all loved autos since they were kids — held their biennial conference in Cleveland. The group, most of whose members are in their mid-60s, visited the factory where Baker once stood, a sprawling facility that the company claimed was the largest electric car plant in America in 1908.

“At one time, it was suggested that Cleveland might be the automotive capital of the world,” Garten says. But today, walking among the abandoned buildings of its ancient automakers, “it’s just like going through the ruins of days gone by.”