Columbia Electric Vehicle Company
Hartford, CT
"A Presidential First"

In the Fall of 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt became the first American President to ride in an automobile - a brand new 1903 Columbia Electric Runabout.

  • Motor: General Electric 40 volt 30 amp

  • Mileage: 40 miles per charge

  • Wheelbase: 64

  • Factory Price: $850.00

  • Batteries: 20 2 cell Edison batteries. Owners had large rack battery chargers.

  • Ignition: The key is a knob with copper contacts to make electrical connection located under the seat.  Easy to operate no crank starting, no fumes, no mess.  Popular among women buyers.

  • Steering: Tiller steering push lever on left, three forward speeds, one reverse.

  • Performance: Top speed 14 mph (downhill!)

  • Chassis: Steel reinforced oak frame.  Leather fenders over steel tube frames.

*Article reprinted from the Antique American Cars of America (AACA), Chicago Auto Show's 100th Showcase.

 

"Following the Woodie"

A Story Featuring Bob & Marianne Anderson's 1937 English Woodie and the Columbia Runabout

Ordinarily, the trip from Barrington, Illinois, to Nickels Automotive Woodworking in Traverse City, Michigan, averages about five and one half hours one way. Following my good friend Bob's '36 Ford Woodie to Traverse City was another matter altogether.

The purpose of our trip was two-fold. Bob and Mike had planned to give the Woodie's wood fitment a thorough once over. Mike had invited me to accompany Bob so I could see an electric 1903 Columbia Runabout, upon which his shop had just performed restoration services. The Columbia did not disappoint. My first impression of the car was that it was much smaller in person than the examples seemed online. While the design and details are quite refined, the car is solidly built.

We embarked early as planned to avoid the morning rush hour traffic, and as the big Chicago skyline receded in our mirrors, time seemed to slow ever so slightly. With every new mile on the clock, the typical pressure to meet a deadline diminished. We ran serenely along, the flat head exhaust note sounding more like an old wooden Chris Craft V-8 motor turning at an easy going pace. Bob was out in front with me following behind. Occasionally there was a subtle tinge of motor oil mixed into the fragrance of the spring flowers, a complimentary rich sweet aroma. The only thing out of place was seeing Bob sitting at the passengers side, the Woodie is right-hand drive.

We made three stops in all, with Woodie admirers at each one. They all seemed to approach the Woodie with their eyes fixed as if they were seeing a long-lost friend. Our last fuel stop was just outside of Cadillac Michigan, where Bob was delayed at the pump for half an hour. He graciously visited with all, answering their questions, leaving the hood open to accommodate their curiosity. Woodies are a cultural icon as American as apple pie. They are a reassuring reminder of a simpler, more innocent time.  As I watched Bob motor onto the pine-lined roadway, I realized that we had entered the environs of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories.

When we arrived at Nickels' shop, we were immediately greeted by Mike who said, "We were beginning to worry," but we didn't have a care in the world, we'd arrived safe and secure. It was a great and unforgettable drive up.

As we made the rounds at Mike's shop, we encountered numerous other vehicles coming to life as well:

Mark Norton's pair of '48 Chevy wagons
A pair of '32 Ford wagons
A '46 4WD Utility wagon-One off
A '29 Pontiac
A 1940 Ford wagon
And Mike and Lana's almost complete '47 Pontiac wagon with early '46 Trim

Mike and his wife Lana pulled out all the stops, inviting twenty guests for dinner at their home.  The dinner was delicious and the strawberry cake we had for desert was heavenly. I know I consumed two pieces. It was the polite thing to do. We enjoyed our meal with an incredible group of knowledgeable and capable vintage motor car and aircraft enthusiasts with whom we were able to compare notes, share stories and thoroughly savor each other's fellowship.

It was 7:15 pm when we were excused from the table. I asked Mike if I could take a few shots of the Runabout and he generously complied. We moved the car from the garage to just outside of the shop and I began to shoot away. While I was shooting the Columbia, Mark and Mike retrieved Mike's canary yellow 1929 Model A Speedster and fired her up! Mark rolled up to me and asked me if I'd be game for a ride. A micro second later, we were on our way. The Speedster has a beautiful sound and as I watched Mark increase the spark advance the Speedster answered with a noticeable increase in speed. OK, we were only going 45 MPH, but 45 MPH in the Speedster feels like 100 in a contemporary car, what a blast! When we returned to the shop there was a line of gray hairs looking more like anxious school boys all waiting their turn to go for a ride, too!

I returned to composing shots of the Runabout, gaining greater appreciation for the refinement and vision the designers and craftsmen had bestowed upon this lovely automobile. I found a certain irony in the fact that 107 years ago Americans were driving "Green" electric cars with a range of forty miles and batteries that could be re-charged overnight, which got me to thinking of what might have been...

"Most Americans did not have electricity in 1903. Columbia introduced the electric headlight and taillight in 1898. Columbia was best known for its bicycles - Began building electric cars in 1897. They purchased the 'Selden patent for the gasoline automobile' and received royalties on all American made gas cars-until Henry Ford took them to court-They were out of business by 1911."*

We hope that you enjoy our story and photographs of the Columbia Runabout as much as we have in presenting them to you.

Special thanks to Mike and Lana Nickels for their warm hospitality.

The 1903 Columbia Electric Car - Runabout is part of the Gilmore Museum Collection.

*Taken from AACA Chicago Auto Show's 100th Showcase

 

 


 

 

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