Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Company, Cleveland Ohio

Date added: July 6, 2022 Categories: Ohio Industrial Auto Companies

Cleveland had a remarkable number of automobile manufacturers during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some lasted only a few years, while others survived for several decades. Cleveland can claim at least fourteen electric car manufacturers between 1898-1920. Of these, only Baker Electric (through its merger with Rauch & Lang) could claim to be in production for this entire period. Most of the other automobile companies lasted for two to five years.

This period was one of great innovation in the automobile industry. Since automobiles of this period were custom-built and small in numbers, barriers to entry into the automobile production business were relatively low requiring only simple machinery and mechanical ingenuity.

Engines and transmissions were uncomplicated in design and auto bodies were very similar to the wood framed carriages and buggies that had been familiar for centuries.

Cars were built to run one of three ways; using steam, electric motors and the internal combustion engine. At the turn of the twentieth century, it would have seemed as though any one of these technologies might have come to prevail. In fact, steam power seemed to have an edge because it was so familiar, and electric power, while fairly new, was rapidly becoming mainstream in many facets of life and had the benefits of reliability, simplicity and ruggedness. By contrast, gasoline powered cars could be cantankerous, difficult to start and fairly complex to maintain.

Three major factors influenced the rapid acceptance of the gasoline-powered automobile. The electric starter, patented 1903, made it easier to start the car without manual cranking; Henry Ford's pioneering assembly line in 1913 made the cost of a Model T Ford affordable for the expanding working class; and the gasoline-powered engine could run continuously with refueling, unlike the electric car which had to be charged for several hours once the batteries ran down.

Walter C. Baker was a New Hampshire native whose parent brought him to Cleveland at the age of four in 1871. His father was associated with Thomas and Rollin White, who developed the White Sewing Machine Company, a major Cleveland industry. The elder Baker invented several features of the sewing machine and was known also for perfecting another White product, roller skates.

Walter Baker trained in engineering at the Case School of Applied Science and later worked for White Sewing Machine, having married Rollin White's daughter in 1891. Baker became interested in the development of ball bearings and also developed several steering and axle elements for the fledgling automobile industry. In 1897 Baker and a partner began working on an electrically powered car, and in 1898 Baker established the Baker Motor Vehicle Company.

In its first factory on East 65th Street near the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Baker Company built its first production car, a small and light electric buggy weighing 550 pounds, steered by a tiller and with a 3/4 horsepower motor and a chain drive. The car could travel a 20-mile radius. Baker made his first sale to his good friend, Ohioan Thomas A. Edison, who worked with Baker on storage battery development. This was Edison's first automobile.

Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Company, Cleveland Ohio

From a new factory on East 69th Street, the Baker Company continued to produce a stream of constantly improved cars. One major improvement was replacement of the chain drive with a drive shaft; another was low-friction bearings that extended the car's range.

By 1904 the company was producing some 400 cars a year in several open- and closed-top models, and in 1906 it moved to a third factory, its last, on the west side of Cleveland on West 80th Street near the lake. Production rose to about 800 cars that year, and by this time standard features included a clock and "toilet articles" for the female driver (or passenger) to whom the electric auto was so appealing.

Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Company, Cleveland Ohio

Baker's 1909 prices ranged between $1,850 and $4,000, and the firm's factory ran day and night to meet demand. That year President Taft ordered a Baker "Queen Victoria" electric as part of the White House's car fleet.

Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Company, Cleveland Ohio

In 1910 the Baker Company opened its new sales and service branch at Euclid Avenue and East 71st Street. The sales office had been downtown on Prospect Avenue near East Fourth Street, but in its new location it could serve one of its major market, the matrons of the "Gold Coast" of Euclid Avenue.

The 50,000-square-foot building combined a showroom and sales office with large maintenance bays serving both electric and gasoline autos. The service area included washracks, repair shops, and paint and trim shops, as well as re-charging facilities. Overnight accommodations for chauffeurs, bringing in their employers' cars for re-charging, were an unusual component of the building.

The Euclid Avenue building was the Baker Company's primary sales agency for the next ten years, which would prove to be the peak years of electric auto production and sales in the United States. The Baker electric car was among the best-selling and most innovative, known for its elegant interior finishes and its long range of nearly 200 miles between charges. The company targeted the female market with multi-page advertising in Vogue and Life magazines in 1912 and advertising in theaters. Yet by the early 1920s, such improvements as the starter motor and a greater range than the electric, as well as a lower price and a growing network of gas and service stations, gave gasoline-fueled cars the advantage and spelled the end of the electric automobile.

The Baker Company merged with Rauch & Lang, its primary Cleveland competitor, in 1915 with the new company remained Baker R. & L. Company (also known as Baker-Raulang). "The company continued producing electric automobiles, for such cars were still in demand, mainly from old, devoted customers, particularly dowagers and a few physicians who had no desire to learn to drive a gasoline-powered car." (Golden Wheels, p. 217)

"In 1917 Baker-Raulang, which had a sideline of road trucks for several years, turned to war work, making shells and bomb handlers. The latter were the first industrial trucks built by Baker. A number of tractors, load-carrying trucks, and elevating trucks were built for the U.S. War Department in 1917, and their production for civilian use was continued after the war. Then, during World War I, the company continued to make some electric automobiles but focused on making shells and bomb handlers. The latter were the first industrial trucks built by Baker. . .their production for civilian use continued after the war. Then, too, the production of Rauch & Lang electric coaches resumed." (Golden Wheels, p. 217)

In 1920, passenger vehicle production was sold and moved to Massachusetts, while the Cleveland operation turned out a line of electric trucks and also began serving other auto manufacturers by producing car bodies. That work ceased in 1948, but the firm eventually became part of the Otis Elevator Company's division that produces electric forklifts, golf carts, and similar vehicles.

With the electric auto having gone the way of the horse and buggy it helped supplant (contemporary automotive development notwithstanding), the Baker Vehicle Company Building on the east side of Cleveland stands today as a reminder of one of the many ways in which innovative entrepreneurs made Cleveland one of the world's premier industrial cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The building at 7100-7122 Euclid Avenue was the principal retail outlet and service facility for the Baker electric car during the period of its greatest popularity. Located close to its primary market, the well-to-do women who lived in the expensive homes in the "Gold Coast" area of Euclid Avenue, the building combined the functions of sales office and showroom; repair, maintenance, and re-charging facilities for electric cars; repair and maintenance facilities for gasoline cars (just in case they proved dominant); and a residential facility for the chauffeurs who worked for the area's families.

The building was designed by Cleveland architect Frank B. Meade who practiced from 1895 until the 1930s and designed more than 800 homes, six club buildings (Hermit, Union, Roadside, Euclid and Century Clubs in Cleveland) and played a leading role in the development of the Group Plan in downtown Cleveland. He was associated with the following firms: Meade and Granger (1896-97), Meade & Garfield (1898-1904), his own firm until 1911, Meade and Hamilton (1911-1941).

A.L. Englander took over the Baker Motor Vehicle Company Building in 1921 and it served as his flagship auto dealership until 1941. Englander was responsible for the 1931 addition to the building.

A.L Englander opened his first automobile dealership in 1906 and operated under a different name. The A.L. Englander Company appeared in the 1919/20 Cleveland City Directory located at 6016 Euclid Avenue. The company moved to the Baker Building in 1921 and by 1925, the firm expanded and had branches at 1305 West 117th Street, St. Clair Avenue at East 125th Street, 1265 West Third Street and 5353 Broadway Avenue. By 1935, during the Depression, the company had contracted to a single location, the Baker Electric Building. Englander sold a number of different types of cars, including Hupmobiles, Buicks, Pontiacs and Studebakers. Englander retired in 1942, but came out of retirement later and was still selling cars at the time of his death in 1963. In 1942 the A.W. Hecker Company took over the building, thus ending its association with Cleveland's early automobile history. A.W. Hecker Co. made custom grinders and finishers until 1966. Carpenter-Reserve Printing Company occupied the building from 1966 until 2001.