The earliest days of the automobile were a time of discovery, with hundreds of manufacturers vying for a place in the market and experimenting with all sorts of propulsion systems and layouts, many of which were doomed for failure. At the time, the majority of automobiles companies were formed by engineers who had built their own car and then moved to market it. But it didn’t take long for businessmen to get involved and see the potential in this amazing new invention.
One of those entrepreneurs was Colonel Albert Augustus Pope, a Civil War veteran who began his post-civil war career in the bicycle business in 1877 and by 1899 owned a conglomerate which controlled some 45 different manufacturers. Pope saw enormous business potential in the automobile and by 1898 had added a range of electric runabouts, touring cars and omni-busses to his catalog. In 1899 he founded the Pope Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. He soon added Columbia & Electric Vehicle company which survived from 1900 through 1913 when it was known as the Columbia Motor Car Company. Under his umbrella, the company produced petrol-powered Pope-Hartford automobiles as well as Columbia electrics, bicycles and motorcycles. Pope’s dream was to dominate the automobile market and his range grew to include eight electric models and seven petrol models. Like many in the dawning days of mechanized transport, Pope’s dream did not translate into reality and following Pope’s death in 1909, the company ceased vehicle production in 1915, though the company’s legacy did live on in the form of Columbia Bicycles which is still in business today.
In the early days of the automobile, electric cars were quite popular among wealthy, independent women who could drive them without having to deal with the hassle of crank starting or paying a chauffeur. The range was enough to get around a typical city, and since buyers tended to be in upper class, urban environments, had ready access to electricity for charging. This charming 1903 Columbia Electric Runabout is a fine example of one of the earliest pioneering electric vehicles. It is finished in attractive two tone dark blue with black patent leather fenders, black landau top and black wooden spoke wheels. It is delightfully sparse, with very little in terms of equipment or bodywork, yet it is loaded with charm. At first glance it seems to be little more than an electrified carriage, yet it is quite well-engineered and constructed. An older restoration, the paint quality and finishes are in good overall condition, but do show some evidence of age and use. The brightwork is in both brass and nickel, all presenting in good order. The cabin is basic but elegant with button fabric upholstery reminiscent of an Edwardian sitting room. Steering is accomplished via a nickel plated tiller, and a simple hand throttle controls output to the single electric motor fitted beneath the chassis which sends drive to the rear wheels via a chain-driven differential. It is all very simple, yet elegant and effective. Brakes are on the rear only, and a lovely and intricate twin-dial display gives readings for Amps and Volts. This Columbia has been adapted to run on modern lead-acid automobile batteries, so charging and replacement are hassle-free. Modern batteries also have superior output, and allow the little runabout to move briskly along.
With the current push toward zero-emissions vehicles, it is fascinating to look back 111 years and see that the pioneers of the automotive industry shared many of the same ideas as today’s engineers. This rare and handsome Columbia is a fascinating piece of history that is also a breeze to enjoy on the road. For those not afraid of a little “range anxiety”, this delightful little runabout is a charming and thoroughly usable piece of automobile history.