Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Canada’s First Electric Car, a Sensation in 1893

The Featherstonhaugh, Canada’s First Electric Automobile 1893

An open runabout style, the innovative first electric car manufactured in Canada raced around the roads of Toronto, Ontario 119 years ago.

Frederick Bernard Featherstonhaugh was a man of the future. A well-heeled lawyer in Toronto, Ontario, his home was one of the first to have electricity and the conveniences that brought with it. Featherstonhaugh also had his eye on the new horseless carriage. Making note of the specific standards he wanted in an automobile, he connected with one of his legal clients, William Still.

William Still was an engineer with an interest in electricity and motors, at that time devising efficient storage batteries for power. He visited Featherstonhaugh to get started on a patent for his battery and found that he and his lawyer were both interested in cars, said Bill Vance in Canadian Driver, February 15, 2008 issue. The men collaborated, Still designing “an electric power train, including batteries and motor, for a vehicle to meet Featherstonhaugh’s standards.” When the engineering design was completed, Dixon Carriage Works was contracted by Featherstonhaugh to build the car.

John Dixon’s Carriage Works in Toronto area

Following the design plans, Dixon constructed a nice little two-seater open runabout style, his firm enjoying status as the first to build an electric car in Canada. With a padded bench seat and fashionable wire spoke wheels, the car weighed in a hefty 700 lbs. Steering was accomplished by tiller with a throttle attachment, turning the axel at mid-point. A drum brake on the differential permitted stopping, and the “four horsepower electric motor was able to push the car to 15 mph, and drive it for up to an hour before the batteries required recharging,” added Bill Vance. The recently installed railway power grid was used to recharge the batteries.

Ahead of its time, the car also had electric lights, a folding top and pneumatic tires for a comfortable ride. Featherstonhaugh was a delighted customer and drove his electric beauty for an amazing 15 years. During that time, he added a windshield of sorts, steering knuckles at the ends of the axel for better steering, and mud flaps to reduce splash-up from the tires. The car was put on display at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1893 and again in 1898, and was no doubt a crowd pleaser.

The Still Motor Company

Building on the success of the Featherstonhaugh automobile, in 1895 William Still and a group of businessmen opened the Canadian Motor Syndicate to engineer, build and sell electric motor cars. Still was the engineer for the company, his innovations were the property of CMS. The business operated until 1899, and Still opened his own Still Motor Company, manufacturing passenger and commercial automobiles, continuing to use electric power.

The quiet, smooth electric engine was popular until the noisy, smelly gasoline combustion engine proved more powerful, more economic and much speedier. By 1910, the electric motor was virtually obsolete, noted History of Early Electric Cars. The ground-breaking Featherstonhaugh car was not saved, but evaporated from history.

This Canadian History article first appeared on Suite101.com.                   ©  Susanna McLeod

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