Virginia Robinson’s Columbia Electric Car

Virginia Robinson bought her new car in 1906. The Los Angeles Times heralded the event on April 8 describing the car as, “…a twenty-four-cylinder Columbia Stanhope-Victoria…”. Since there was no model with that name at the time, it was likely to have been an extremely popular model among the East Coast society ladies, a “Victoria-Phaeton.” This model of the Columbia electric cars was considered an expensive automobile. People could purchase the much more affordable gasoline internal combustion engine cars as well. Nonetheless, the electric cars had many advantages over the gasoline version. Electric cars were odorless, quiet and simple to drive as well as easy to charge at home. They were much more user-friendly, as we would say today.

The following is a photograph of a woman charging a 1912 Columbia electric car.

These characteristics made the higher price tag for this electric car worth it for a woman of a certain means. The newspaper described Virginia’s new car as being “specially finished in blue, with gold washed trimmings on the lamps and rails.”

Click on the link below to see a video displaying and describing the same model car completely restored. Although the conversation is not in English, it provides an excellent look at a similar car.

At the beginning of the 20th century, even Thomas Edison was very interested in electric vehicles and worked on increasing their battery capacities. In a potential partnership with Edison, Henry Ford considered producing affordable electric vehicles. Therefore, when Virginia chose her car, the electric one was a more desirable selection for her. The gasoline fueled car required much more effort to run and maintain. They were noisy, and their exhaust was unpleasant. In addition, their entire mechanical reliability was imperfect.

Nonetheless, the gasoline-fueled car won out over the electric car as there was no infrastructure support for electric charging outside of a large city or at your home. Until 1935 when FDR signed the Rural Electrification Order into law, only 3% of farm homes were electrified.  Motorists of the time called the gas stations, “filling stations,” and they were proliferating across the United States as oil became an abundant and steady resource. In the first decade of the twentieth century, oil production nearly tripled in the United States. In addition, the 1912 model Cadillac introduced the electric starter which eliminated the need for the very troublesome and difficult to operate cranks in front of the cars. (However, many manufacturers continued to sell crank started cars until they were finally completely discontinued in 1927). This opened the door for the final blow to the electric car. Also, Ford had begun to mass manufacture the more reliable gasoline driven internal combustion engine Model T and then sold these cars for a very reasonable price which enabled a larger population to purchase one.

And now after so many years, we are again looking at the rapid rise in electric car manufacturing. In a publication from the Department of Energy in September 15, 2014, written by Rebecca Matulka, titled “The History of the Electric Car,” Rebecca states that the cost of the vehicle and the ever expanding battery capacity increase is based in part on the Department of Energy’s investment in battery research and development just in the last four years. She goes on to conclude about the future of the electric car that “it’s still hard to tell where the future will take electric vehicles, but it’s clear they hold a lot of potential for creating a more sustainable future. If we transitioned all the light-duty vehicles using our current technology mix, we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 30-60 percent, while lowering the carbon pollution from the transportation sector by as much as 20 percent.”

Did Virginia see this coming? I wonder.

References:  Bruce Duffie was extremely helpful when I reached out to him to find out if Virginia’s car was electric or gasoline powered. He gave me incredible assistance in not only identifying the likely car model but also in supplying me with some images of these automobiles. Bruce’s grandfather, Lawrence Duffie, drove a Columbia Motor Car from Chicago to New York at breakneck speed, arriving in 76 hours once in 1903 and again with better time in 1904. This was when roads were doubtful at best, and at night there was no light except for the car’s headlights, making for a journey described as if you were driving in a black pool of darkness.

Post by Marcella Ruble
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member and VRG Historian

3 Responses

  1. Patti Reinstein
    | Reply

    What a wonderful article! As a Tesla owner, I see that Virginia was a woman before her time. Patti

  2. Joel Segala Robinson
    | Reply


  3. Eva Farrey
    | Reply

    I truly had no idea that there was an electric car manufactured at that time. I loved that the article focuses on a woman of that day and picturing her in front of a charging unit. Who knew? Not me! I enjoyed the read.

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