As the roads of the world become increasingly populated with gasoline-electric hybrids, plug-ins, and fully electric vehicles, it poses an opportunity to pause and look back through the pages of automotive history, where we discover some of what we consider cutting-edge technology today is mirrored in the past. The period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a time of unencumbered creativity that gave rise to the motoring industry. The early days of motoring were rife with experimentation as automobiles rapidly evolved from the simplest modified motorized carriages into sophisticated, sometimes needlessly complicated machines. Virtually every aspect of automobile design was open to interpretation, and primitive forms of today’s familiar tech made the occasional appearance as manufacturers sorted out the best way to build and market the automobile.
One of the more creative and unusual solutions came from an electrical engineer and former employee of Thomas Edison named Justus B. Entz. As early as the late 1800s, Entz began experimenting with a unique electric transmission system that could, in theory, provide infinitely variable ratios without a direct connection between the engine and rear axle. The Entz Electric Drive Transmission replaced the engine’s flywheel with a set of field windings, which acted as a generator to power an electric traction motor attached to the rear axle via a driveshaft, similar in principle to a modern diesel-electric locomotive. There was no direct connection between the gasoline engine and the drive wheels, and the system provided powerful electrical braking, which also had a regenerative feature that charged the vehicle’s electrical system- the ancestor of the MGU-K in a modern F1 car! Entz’s first demonstration ended in disaster when the powerful electrical arc from the transmission ignited the engine’s fuel supply and burned the whole prototype to the ground. But he saw promise in the system and persisted with refining it over several years. He later built a more successful prototype on an Austro Daimler provided by his primary financial backer, Mr. Roy Rainey. That car became the very first Entz automobile, which debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1914.
Entz and his invention previously caught the attention of Raymond and Ralph Owen, who began working on adapting the system for production as early as 1912. By 1915, the Owens had taken over Entz’s project and partnered with Baker Electric to produce the cars commercially as the Owen Magnetic. After the first 250 cars, production shifted from New York to Cleveland, where Rausch & Lang Electric joined forces with Baker in supporting the Owen brothers. By this time, interest in electric cars was waning, and they saw their involvement in the Owen Magnetic as a bid to stay competitive. R&L produced the coachwork in their existing body shop, while Baker Electric built the Owen Magnetic chassis and engine, and Raymond Owen directed sales. Billed as “The car of a Thousand Speeds,” the Owen Magnetic struggled to find buyers. For a car with such advanced technology, it is not surprising that it was quite costly, becoming one of America’s most expensive cars by 1918, costing a substantial $6,500. It was also heavy and difficult to service by the average mechanic.
By 1919, Baker R & L ended their involvement in the project, and Raymond Owen moved production to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, where a few more cars trickled out. Despite a promising order for 500 vehicles to be sold in England under the Crown Magnetic name, that deal fell through due to lack of funding, relegating the Owen Magnetic and Justus Entz’s unconventional yet fascinating electric transmission to the history books in 1920.
Once part of the world-famous Nethercutt collection, this 1917 Owen Magnetic M-25 Touring is one of only a handful of known survivors from this unusual and innovative marque. This example wears an older cosmetic restoration, presented in pale yellow over black fenders and chassis. The 5-passenger touring body is attractive and well built, with pleasing details such as brass headlamp rings, and a distinctive V-shaped radiator. Despite the remarkable engineering that sits below the skin, the M-25 tourer is a relatively understated car, with a handsome yet conventional appearance. There is a moderate patina in the finish, and while it is consistent and generally sound, there are noticeable imperfections due to the age of the paintwork. The wooden spoke artillery wheels are in good condition, wearing period-style Non-Skid tires.
The black upholstery presents in a similar condition to the rest of the cosmetics. While the restoration is now considerably aged, it is generally well-preserved and in sound order, benefitting from regular care during its time as a display piece. Interior panels and flooring are also tidy, and the folding black vinyl top is excellent. The dash features a variety of period instruments, and from the driver’s seat, you experience the unique control arrangement of the Owen Magnetic. A single foot pedal controls engine speed, while the large lever on the steering wheel controls electrical output via a series of detents. There are no gears to mesh, no rev-matching, and no heavy clutch pedal. Reverse gear is operated via a lever to the driver’s left, and a second lever operates the supplementary mechanical brake. It is a marvelously clever arrangement that combines the best of the simplistic early electrics, with the versatility and range of an internal combustion vehicle.
This car features a 303 cubic inch Continental six-cylinder engine, fed by a single Zenith Stromberg carburetor. The engine starts and runs, though due to a period of disuse, it will need additional attention to return to the road. As a feat of engineering, the Owen Magnetic is genuinely astonishing and a machine that is well ahead of its time. This well-preserved example would make a superb display piece while also making a suitable candidate for restoration. With our attention turning to alternative fuel vehicles, the Owen Magnetic offers a fascinating look back at the technology of yesterday, where we remember that even the best ideas of today may not necessarily be new ones.
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