Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fritchle Electric Car Company

     The Fritchle Car Company was once housed in what is now The Fillmore Auditorium (Colfax Avenue & Clarkson Street). Here is some fascinating history about the development of an idea way ahead of its time:

From HISTORY 100 Miles On One Charge -- The remarkable Fritchle electric car by Carl Sulzberger:

     The early years of the "Automotive Age," beginning about 1895, were marked by electric-powered motor vehicles being a significant factor in engineering innovation and in vehicle sales. However, faced with competition from continually improved gasoline-powered internal combustion engine vehicles and the limited availability of battery recharging stations, electric vehicle sales peaked in 1912 and then began a steady decline almost to the point of extinction by the mid-1920s. This article is the story of one of the truly outstanding early electric automobiles and its equally outstanding designer and manufacturer.
Oliver Fritchle
     Born in 1874 in Mount Hope, Ohio, Oliver Parker Fritchle graduated in 1896 from Ohio State University with a degree in chemistry. While working as a chemical engineer in the steel and ore smelting industries in Colorado in 1897, he became fascinated by electric motive power. Drawing on his chemistry training, Fritchle developed a superior 28-cell lead-acid battery weighing 400–600 lb that easily powered an 8-hp motor. He received a patent on his battery in 1903 and shortly thereafter established an electrical engineering firm and formed the Fritchle Electric Storage Battery Company in Denver, Colorado. Designing and building electric vehicles soon followed.

     The first Fritchle electric car was produced in 1905 and, by the end of 1907, another 20 or so had been delivered to customers in the Denver area. The Fritchle battery system permitted a driving range of 100 mi or more over relatively level terrain between overnight charges, a rare capability in the early years of the last century. Because few parts suppliers were available, Fritchle became noted for manufacturing both the batteries and virtually all of the mechanical and body components for his cars. Fritchle also maintained a repair center and charging station in Denver for the convenience of his local customers. The Fritchle batteries generally lasted for more than 10,000 mi and could be replaced at a cost of US$208. The cars were advertised and trademarked as "100-mile Fritchle Electrics," and they lived up to this claim. Another feature of the Fritchle was a regeneration system in which the motor became a generator when the car was coasting downhill, thereby partly recharging the batteries.

     Electric automobiles were usually advertised as town cars suitable for short runs over reasonably good roads in areas where recharging stations were readily available. Fritchle, on the other hand, promoted the electric as suitable for speed and long distance touring. As shown in Figure 1, Fritchle challenged other manufacturers to match their electric vehicles against his in a contest of speed, power, and endurance. Finding no takers, Fritchle promoted his cars by undertaking an endurance run from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City in a 1908 regular production two-seat Victoria model selling for US$2,000. The car weighed 2,100 lb, including 800 lb of batteries. He took along a set of tools, chemicals to service the batteries, and one extra tire and inner tube.

     So confident was he in his car that he did not bring any spare mechanical parts. However, he thoughtfully carried a camera with a remote control shutter to record and publicize his adventure. Starting out on the cold and damp morning of 31 October 1908, he arrived in front of the Hotel Knickerbocker in Times Square, New York City, on 28 November 1908 after a total driving time of 20 days. He covered the 1,800 mi over rough to poor to nonexistent roads with no mechanical breakdowns. He suffered only one flat tire, and he had to reline the brakes with camel's hair after a long descent of the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania. He followed a carefully planned route to assure the availability of charging facilities at electric central stations or at "electric garages" along the way. Battery recharging cost US$1/h and lasted up to 10 h. After a side trip to Washington, D.C., during which Fritchle drove up the driveway to the front of the Capitol Building, he and his car returned to Denver by train.

     The Lincoln-to-New York endurance run proved the durability and superior operation of the Fritchle Electric and earned Fritchle wide personal acclaim and nationwide advertising for his cars. He changed the name of his company to the Fritchle Automobile and Electric Storage Battery Company and expanded the line of cars to at least six different models plus a light delivery truck. Most cars were sold in the Denver area, but there were agencies as far away as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Angeles, California. The International Fritchle Company was formed after the 1908 endurance run, and a sales office operated for a time at 505 Fifth Avenue, New York City. Like most motor vehicles produced in small numbers, Fritchle cars were expensive. For example, the 1912 four-passenger electric touring car shown in Figure 2 sold for US$2,500 at a time when a 1912 five-passenger Ford Model T gasoline-powered touring car could be purchased for about US$700. The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805–1942 (see "For Further Reading") records that a total of 1,540 Fritchle motor vehicles were manufactured between 1905 and 1920. Peak production occurred between 1909 and 1914 when an average of 198 vehicles per year were built. After 1917, production fell dramatically as the early electric car progressively gave way to its gasoline-powered competition.

     In an unsuccessful effort to remain in the automobile manufacturing business, Fritchle introduced a hybrid electric/ internal combustion car in 1916, but few were sold. As automobile production fell, Fritchle developed a system to generate electricity using farmers' windmills. Between 1918 and 1923, over 80 wind-powered electric generators were built and installed in about 20 states and several foreign countries. In his later years, Oliver Fritchle worked for the Buick Motor Car Company for a time and remained active in the radio and electric industries until his retirement in 1941. He died in 1951 in Long Beach, California, one month short of his 77th birthday. Epilogue An immaculately maintained and fully operational 1914 Fritchle electric Colonial Coupe is on prominent display at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. One of the few remaining Fritchles in existence, the vehicle is on loan from its owners, Mr. and Mrs. C. Robert Lingo, other Lingo family members, and John Tucker. When it arrived in 1990, more than 75 years after it was built, it was driven under its own power through the streets of Denver. The museum display, which also includes a General Electric mercury arc rectifier and control panel for home battery recharging, is a fitting tribute to the creator of one of the finest lines of early electric automobiles.

For Further Reading C. Secrest, "Colorado's Fritchle electric auto: Cross-country in 1908," Colorado Heritage, pp. 39-44, Autumn 1999.


  1. Oh! Thank you so much, JONNY BARBER! I am looking for some fascinating history about the development of The Fritchle Car Company. You gave me a helpful story.

  2. Great post! Thanks for your information!

  3. The fact is that many excellent inventors weren't firstly educated in the field that they became well known in later, thanks for your interesting article.

  4. Useful information. I'm always curious on this car company. Thanks.

  5. Fritchle Car Company is one of my daddy's favourite car company, but this is the first time I read about its history. I think now I'm its fan. thanks so much.

  6. Very useful information. Do you have a high quality of the second picture(100-MILE Fritchle Electric)? I want to use it in my lesson for my kids.