EV’s are a hot topic right now. But what comes to mind when you hear the term Electric Vehicle? Chances are you’ve got a Tesla in mind, or something else equally futuristic. What you wouldn’t expect to find is an Electric Vehicle dating back to 1904. But it exists. It’s called the Electric Baker. And it’s owned and driven by vintage car enthusiast, Neville Digby, right here in New Zealand.
We thought this was something worth getting excited about, so caught up with Neville to chat about his car and what it’s like to own it.
Q: So, you’re the owner of New Zealand’s oldest Electric Vehicle?
A: Yes. Well, I’m the owner of New Zealand’s oldest original Electric car. There are a couple of replicas knocking about that people claim are older, but mine’s the oldest original, warranted and registered EV.
Q: Tell us a bit about the car.
A: It’s a 1904 Baker Electric - one of only six of this model left in the world. Back in the early 1900’s, these cars were driven and adored by people like Thomas Edison and First Lady Nellie Taft, wife of the 27th US President, Howard Taft.
Q: And how does it actually work?
A: It’s got four 12-volt batteries, which power a Westinghouse electric motor. I then control the speed with what’s called a Drum Controller, which is a cylinder that rotates and feeds voltage to different parts of the motor. It’s steered by a tiller, which is one of my favourite things about the car. And the brakes work just like normal cars – two pedals on the floor that speak to the rear axle and motor shaft.
Q: And you charge it up at home?
A: I do, yes. I charge each battery individually overnight with your standard modern charger. I do actually own the original 300kg charger, (which cost me more to freight over to NZ than buy), but it needs restoring, which I’m hoping to get around to one day!
Q: How did you come to own such an incredible, rare vehicle?
A:It’s quite a good story, actually. (At this point Neville asks us how much time we’ve got, as it’s not a short story.) I’ve always been interested in vintage cars, which led to me helping restore a 1918 Walker Electric truck owned by my employer in the 1980s. Then in 2008, I was contacted by an American who was after information and advice on how we did it. After a bit of internal debate, I copied a wad of A4 material about two inches thick— including drawings — and sent it to him. I never heard back from the guy, which left me pretty pissed off!
Then I started thinking about the future and realised how much I’d miss the Walker truck when I retired, so decided to start looking round for a vintage electric car. I bid at a number of international auctions – and even sold my 1906 Cadillac to boost the old bank balance – but even then, my pockets weren’t quite deep enough.
Then it all happened. I’m a member of the Antique Electric Vehicle Association in the US – and after about my fifth failed auction, a fellow member emailed me about an 86-year-old, wheel-chair bound California member who was thinking about selling his Baker.
So I rang him up, but he initially wasn’t very keen on the idea at all. Even after mentioning my role as president of NZ’s Veteran Car Club, he wasn’t interested. Then I started talking about restoring the Walker electric truck and immediately sensed a change in his tone. He interrupted me and he said, “wait, are you the bloke who copied all the information about the Walker and sent it to my best friend Eric?”
Ten minutes later, I owned the Baker.
Q: That’s quite a remarkable story. So how much did it cost you?
A: You’re not allowed to ask me that! Not because I don’t want to tell you, but because my wife doesn’t know. And I’m not quite ready for her to find out just yet.
Q: (Laughing) Fair enough. Okay, so what’s it like to drive?
A: It’s great fun to drive. It handles well for such an old car, plus it’s top speed is only about 40km/h, so you never feel out of control. I also love how quiet it is. It makes next to no noise, which is great for sneaking up on cyclists! In terms of distance, I must admit to suffering from a bit of range anxiety when I’ve been out for more than about an hour. I’ve never run out of power yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time!
Q: And lastly, what’s the reception like when you’re out and about?
A: People love it. It never takes me long to spot my car in the carpark when coming out the shopping mall, as it’s always surrounded by people. Yep, lots of compliments, photos and waves. And without exception, people are gobsmacked to learn that it’s 100% electric. No one realises that EV’s were around at the early part of last century, so it’s good getting to chat to people about that.
Awesome. Neville, thanks so much for talking to us.
You’re very welcome. If you’re ever down in Christchurch, get in touch. I’ll be happy to take you for a ride!