Long before William “Billy” Durant founded General Motors, Col. Albert Augustus Pope built America’s first multi-tier automobile manufacturing empire. Pope amassed a considerable fortune in the years immediately following the Civil War, in which he proudly served the Union Army. The Pope Manufacturing Company got its start building patented items for other companies, and its first foray into wheeled transport came with a deal to import English bicycles.
The popularity of bicycles exploded in the late 1800s, and Pope was poised to meet demand. He set up a partnership with the Weed Sewing Machine Company to manufacture bikes sold under the Columbia brand name- which still exists today. Partnerships with numerous manufacturers followed, and in 1899 he created the American Bicycle Company, providing manufacturing and marketing services for some 45 different bike brands, making Col. Pope a very wealthy man in the process and laying the foundation for his future endeavors. As motorized transport took over from the bicycle craze, Pope was at the forefront of this new frontier. One of the earliest automobiles from Pope was initially sold as the Waverly, starting in 1898. The small electric runabout was the result of a partnership between the American Electric Vehicle Company of Chicago and the Indiana Bicycle Company, of Indianapolis. Later, the two firms would be consolidated to become Pope-Waverley from 1904 onward.
A rapid expansion of Pope’s automobile range followed, with the mighty, $6,000 Pope-Toledo sitting at the top, followed closely by the Pope-Hartford. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the $600 Pope-Tribune, with the electric-only Pope-Waverley starting at $850. Each brand encompassed a dizzying array of models, Pope-Waverley alone had thirteen different models to choose from in 1907. This unchecked growth would eventually prove to be Pope’s undoing. The market for cars hadn’t reached the level that Pope expected, and the cost of offering so many models began to weigh heavily on the company. After a brief period as America’s first big automotive conglomerate, the receivers came knocking. Pope-Waverley had closed by 1908, with only Pope-Hartford soldiering on until 1914.
This charming Pope-Waverley Model 36B Speed Road Wagon is one of eight different models offered by Waverley for 1906. Riding on a 72-inch wheelbase chassis, the Speed Road Wagon is a basic, two-seat runabout roadster with a surrey top and a flat rear deck. This lovely example benefits from a recent cosmetic freshening with new paintwork and restored nickel plating. The excellent wood body is finished in gloss black, accented by a dark green chassis, dark green wheels and an understated combination of green pinstripes on the body and dark red on the wheels and chassis. Beautiful nickel-plated fittings, patent leather mudguards, and white natural-rubber tires give the car a crisp and elegant presentation.
The green button-tufted leather bench allows room for two passengers. Steering is by a centrally mounted tiller, with foot controls for the brake and throttle. Battery life is monitored via a combination amp/volt meter which proudly carried the Pope-Waverley and Electric Vehicle Company names. The green carpet is in fine condition, and the nickel plating on the controls and tiller is recently restored to a high standard. Complementing the leather and carpet is a green-lined leather surrey top which is also in excellent condition.
The beauty of early electric cars lays in their remarkably mechanical simplicity. The electric motor is directly affixed to the rear axle, fed by a series of modern lead-acid batteries mounted in the trunk. Mechanical rear drum brakes aid in the stopping and suspension is by buggy-style elliptical springs. There’s very little to go wrong, and the modern batteries are easy to maintain and vastly improve range and performance. Once you master the tiller steering, it’s a delightfully simple machine to drive – and quite fun considering 100% of the torque is available instantly.
With the increased attention on electric power for our modern vehicles, early examples such as this Pope-Waverley are as relevant as ever in automotive history, and today’s collectors appreciate electric horseless carriages for many of the same reasons as the original buyers did. Uncomplicated, easily serviced, and a breeze to drive, this rare and beautifully finished Pope-Waverley provide a fascinating look back to the alternative-fuel motorcars of our past.