Baker Electric Torpedoes


Between 1902-03 Walter Baker built three streamlined electric racing cars called “Torpedoes.” These near forgotten electrics should be remembered for four good reasons:

  1. They allowed Walter Baker to become the first man in history to break the 100-mph barrier in a motorcar;
  2. the Torpedoes’ bodies were remarkably streamlined, decades ahead of anything similar;
  3. because Walter Baker regularly crashed his cars, none of his speed marks went into the record books. Even in his own day, he became known as “Bad Luck Baker;” and
  4. What probably saved his life in all those crashes were plain, simple shoulder harnesses, an idea again much too modern for the times.

At the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars held the world land speed record (WLSR). Two electrics in particular kept re-upping the international mark: the French-built Jeantaud and the Belgian Jenatzy. Until 1902, electrics remained considerably faster than piston-engined cars.

Baker war tall and wiry, with a jaunty mustache. He wore tinted goggles when racing. In 1901 Walter decided to go after the WLSR for electric vehicles. He believed that speed would mitigate the common (and correct) perception that electric cars lacked endurance. So he took $10,000 of his own money (roughly $257,000 today) and began to lay out an electric racer. But unlike other builders, Baker recognized the value of aerodynamics. He also figured that a sleek, fast racer would impress the American buying public.

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 surrounded by a cork crashpad. Baker mounted 11 batteries plus a 14-horsepower Elwell-Parker electric motor behind the seats and ran double chains to the rear axle.

Driver and brakeman sat in tandem in original Torpedo. Both wore shoulder harnesses. Batteries and 14-bhp electric motor stood in rear.