We’re given exclusive access to Harrods’ 1901. Waverley electric car and find out whether EVs have changed over the past 100+ years. The world’s oldest motoring event takes place every year from London to Brighton and features some of the most elderly surviving vehicles of all time. We were offered an exclusive ride on Harrods’ superb 1901 electric horseless carriage.
A somewhat vague date as to the world’s first electric car is attributed to several individuals who were all experimenting with electric motors at around the same period in history. In 1821, Michael Faraday invented the electric motor. Years ahead of his time, uses for it were not immediately obvious. However, certain clever thinking individuals put their minds to the application of moving vehicles and by the mid 1830’s the first electric car had certainly already been designed and built.
THE EMANCIPATION RUN A semi-restored photograph of Harrods’ Panhard-Levassor entry in the 1896 London to Brighton run.
Most people attribute the invention to a Scot, Robert Anderson, who designed, built and tested a battery-powered horseless carriage. However, as the invention of the rechargeable battery did not arrive until 1859, his creation was of limited use and history has since sadly managed to lose most of the details of its existence. Fortunately, at the time there were many people convinced that horses were old hat and should be replaced by technology. The electric motor provided the immediate solution in lieu of anything else, although the question of storing power was always a difficult one to answer, with every possibility incurring huge costs in the form of dangerous chemicals or undesirable weight. Horses, it appeared, still had a few years left in them.
However, in Holland a Dutchman, Sibrandus Stratingh, and a German, Christopher Becker, were busy working together and in 1834 they tested their vehicle in the suburbs of a dutch city. The result was lauded a great success and quotes such as, “… moving at the speed of several running horses” captured the imagination of the press and public alike. However, the car was not electric and was instead powered by steam. The inventors were unhappy with the lack of vehicle refinement and the noise and smoke were intolerable – especially when compared to the relative luxury offered by horse power. Stratingh felt the best alternative was to employ the electric motor in place of the steam engine.
Just a year later in 1835, after several further designs, Stratingh created a battery powered, electric motor driven horseless carriage. The significance of his creation likely didn’t dawn on him at the time, since the vehicle only weighed three kilos. However, its purpose showed that electric power had credence and could support half its own weight and operate for fifteen minutes before running out of current from its precariously mounted metal acid battery. Stratingh continued his research with electric motors, making some significant advances for the time. Unfortunately, he died just years later, in 1841, from ill health and with that much of the progression he had achieved was lost. By 1881, a Frenchman named Gustave Trouve unveiled the first electric powered vehicle featuring a rechargeable battery and with it the dawn of a new age and resurgence in interest for electric propulsion began.
The interest sparked many inventors to follow suit and before long there was an urgent interest in creating horseless carriages. Karl Benz famously unveiled the world’s first petrol powered automobile in 1885 and with it modern motoring as we know it commenced.
On the 14th November 1896, the first ever London to Brighton Run took place. The Run was a celebration of a change in law, which enabled vehicles (or light locomotives) to travel at 14mph, opposed to 4mph which had been the previous limit. Similarly, the need for a man to precede a vehicle on foot waving a red flag was also quashed and as such the symbolic start to every Run since is with the destruction of a red flag. Taking place annually on the first Sunday in November, today the Run is regarded as the world’s longest running motoring event.
Harrods’ Panhard-Levassor petrol powered delivery van (shown above) was one of the original 33 entrants in the Emancipation Run. By 1901, the battle between petrol and electric power was in full swing and Harrods, keen to impress their wealthy clientele, had a Pope Waverley electric car amongst their fleet of vans, for use in and around London. Early petrol cars were often gruff, noisy and unrefined monstrosities, whereas electric power was quiet, refined and produced no dirty exhaust fumes. In addition, petrol engines lacked starter motors and required dangerous hand cranking which, over the years, claimed many a broken arm. More than that, electric cars were easy to use which accounted for one of the main reasons they were able to see off competition from steam power. Petrol cars were also underpowered and lacked torque at low revs, necessitating the use of many gears. In the early years, gears were straight cut and clutches exceptionally heavy making gear changes a thing of great skill and difficulty. Outside towns and cities, roads were also in poor condition, making journeys beyond urban areas difficult. This meant the limited range of electric vehicles was never an issue and only became a concern when roads connecting urbanisation came into being.
In many ways, it is a wonder why so much effort was put into the development of petrol power which didn’t really offer any advantage over electric, aside from range. Between the years 1901 and 1910, electric cars enjoyed great success. America, where the largest market was, swallowed an impressive 40% electric car sales year on year, in comparison to petrol power achieving a mere 22%. In 1901, the Pope Waverley was born from perhaps the most successful bicycle company at the time.
Colonel Albert Augustus Pope had made his fortune from bicycles. Having first imported Penny Farthings from Europe, he quickly took out US patents based on their designs and resultantly commanded royalties from many bicycle manufacturers who used the designs. He didn’t simply rest on his laurels though and built bicycle manufacturing facilities which, at their height, sold a quarter of a million bicycles in the mid 1890’s.
He eventually turned his attention to electric vehicles which were showing promise and thus the Pope Motor Carriage department was born. At the time, Pope was lucky enough to be employing Hiram Percy Maxim as his chief engineer who is separately celebrated as having later invented the exhaust muffler for gasoline powered vehicles – a major improvement that reduced noise considerably and made the petrol engine a worthy adversary to electric power. With Maxim in charge, Pope produced several electric powered horseless carriages and the company soon spun off the division with its own name, Columbia, which was taken from the most popular brand name of Pope’s own bicycles.
Very quickly, the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) acquired the Columbia brand as part of their effort to consolidate resources throughout America, in a venture that would ultimately meet demise, but that’s another story.
Undeterred from the electric car world after the purchase by EVC, Pope recommenced production of his electric cars using the same model name as had been offered by the Columbia brand; the Waverley. Historically, there is some confusion as to the exact turn of events that followed since there were several brand name changes within a short space of time that included, ‘American Bicycle Co.’, ‘International Motor Co.’ and ‘Pope Motor Car Co.’ all of which were run out of the same factory in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. From 1899 through 1907 the ‘Waverley’ model was built with little alteration, aside from the various nameplate changes occurring on the factory door.
Whichever model year was bought, advertising for it also changed little and the marketing people were keen to point out the electric cars’ benefits stating in a 1904 advert, “That the clean, noiseless, odourless, easy riding, ever ready Pope-Waverley can be maintained and operated at less cost, mile for mile, than any other automobile of like capacity, no one who reads our new catalogue, just off the press, can possibly doubt.”
The advert continues, “Before you buy an automobile of any kind get into correspondence with us. We believe we can demonstrate to your entire satisfaction that you should prefer an Electric, of which the Pope-Waverley is the world’s highest type.” Clearly, the Waverley was highly regarded by its maker and its relatively long production period was justified accordingly.
The Waverley pictured here in Harrods’ livery is a 1901 model, as dated by the Veteran Car Club (VCC) when determining eligibility to participate in the London to Brighton event.
The car’s unique history indicates it was originally owned by Harrods for a time. More recently, it was owned by a Harrods share holder who sold it back to the shop in 2013. As aforementioned, Harrods were not new to the London to Brighton run, having taken part in the Emancipation Run, and neither were they new to electric vehicles either. As early as 1913, Harrods undertook their own study as to which transportation method they should employ for deliveries. The study concluded that electric power made best economical sense for local deliveries in London, rather than petrol or horse power. As such, they ordered a fleet of Walker Model K’s, an American built electric van.
Later on, and at a time when electric vehicles had largely been relegated to the history books already, Harrods decided to stick with the merits of electricity and even designed and built 60 of their own vans. These new models were almost entirely original, apart from a few borrowed parts such as the wheels. Unfortunately, the entire fleet was scrapped in the 1960’s, with the exception of four which were salvaged from ‘alternative uses’ and painstakingly restored to their former glory. Harrods continue to maintain and run a couple from their underground workshop and still use them for special deliveries to this day, as they provide ample range and power although offer precious little by way of braking.
While the much later electric vans benefit from the storage of a huge bank of batteries, offering up to 60 miles range, but at a slow 18mph, the Waverley offers just 10 miles from its four series linked leisure batteries. Driving the Waverley is a precise art as Len Brown, historic vehicles curator for Harrods described, “The brakes were good for their day, being outboard but they work by a cam flexing a cast iron shoe,” he continued, “the problem is, there’s no hinge in the shoe and it relies on the flex. As it was very old when we got the car, it snapped during a drive and simply fell onto the road in two pieces.” Such are the hazards of veteran motoring. Aside from the suspect brake design, there is an additional foot operated ‘hand brake’ which Len holds in place using a custom made wooden wedge he expertly pushes into the pedal slot, holding the brakes on.
Having once been on the London to Brighton Run myself, on a Stanley steam car, the hazards of old technology is nothing new and the Waverley certainly appears less rudimentary or dangerous than the steam experience. For one thing, the controls are simple. Instead of using a steering wheel, as per modern convention, the Waverley uses a basic tiller that folds up and out of the way for passengers boarding the machine. Steering is therefore more like controlling a boat than what most people would associate with driving a car.
Top speed is around 10 mph from vehicle’s motor, which runs at 48 Volts. Things begin to get hairy when the motor starts to draw more than 15 Amps and Len tells a story about what happened during the 2013 Run, “There is a large hill just before heading down to Brighton and the Waverley started to slow to a crawl as we began the incline. We decided to hop out and run alongside the car to reduce its weight. However, what we hadn’t considered was that having reduced the weight, the car then picked up speed and we had a job keeping up with it! We had to run and jump aboard just before the crest of the hill!”
Despite its age and the complexity of other veteran cars, the Waverley offers an easy drive and, according to Len, can be driven by anybody. Aside from the rudimentary steering, expectedly poor brakes and risk of coming to a halt on inclines, it is easy to see why. Acceleration is taken care of by a simple lever and interestingly, even for its day, the car featured a three speed gearbox plus reverse, which is similar to modern day electric powertrains currently being developed to improve economy over a single speed drive. The Waverley is uncannily silent and, with Len’s expert control, smooth and refined too. Progress is brisk with virtually no weight to speak of and on flat, metalled roads the electric torque is just as prevalent in an over one hundred year old car, as it is in a modern day equivalent.
With respect to range and the London to Brighton run, battery swaps are the order of the day, rather than more lengthy recharges. Allowing for plenty of room for error, Len says that at least five swaps en-route are needed to reach the southern seaside town. Each leisure type battery is swapped by the removal of the rear panier (under the large black cover) and then a wooden cover that simply slots over the concealed batteries. Originally, only four batteries were used so that is all that is still installed today. However, Len says it wouldn’t be hard to increase range by the addition of more batteries, for which there is plenty of space though at 29 kilos each, performance may be hampered.
The Waverley is a showcase for the longevity of electric power, which has propelled this little car for more than 100 years. Batteries are the weak point and have been replaced many times. They are, however, simple and cheap to change and resultantly the car soldiers on. It is a small wonder there aren’t more electric cars in the London to Brighton Run, especially considering the quantity sold in period. At least there is one on show though, and it’s great to see it in use rather than in a museum.
MAIN Despite the dark and dismal day in London, the chirpy Waverley looked at home with its pram-like hood up.
LEFT FROM OPPOSITE It is easy to envisage the early days of motoring with the Waverley outside period homes. Beautiful instrument takes pride of place on the cabin floor. Plaque identifies the vehicle. Quad ‘leisure’ batteries.
CONTROLS A strange accessory for an electric car, in the shape of an ancient fire extinguisher which sits beside the foot brake.
Stitched sign is obvious advertising. Beautiful details are to be found all over the car.
INSET Refined for its day, the Waverley moves with near silence making for a surreal veteran car experience. MAIN IMAGE 1901 Pope Waverley electric car, owned by Harrods. Photographed near their world famous store.