More in

Late great engineers: Oliver Fritchle - EV pioneer

Over a century ago American engineer Oliver Fritchle was the undisputed king of the electric vehicle, making the headlines for his phaeton that could travel 100 miles on a single charge. Written by Nick Smith

FRITCHLE ELECTRIC CAR ADVERT 1908. Designed by American chemist and entrepreneur Oliver P. Fritchle. The IOO mile refers to his epic 1908 Lincoln to New York endurance run in which he covered 2,900 km (1,800 miles)
FRITCHLE ELECTRIC CAR ADVERT 1908. Designed by American chemist and entrepreneur Oliver P. Fritchle. The IOO mile refers to his epic 1908 Lincoln to New York endurance run in which he covered 2,900 km (1,800 miles) - Alamy stock photo

The advertisements in Motor Age magazine described it as the “greatest electric car in the world” and “the only electric guaranteed to go 100 miles on one charge.” The year was 1908 and the vehicle was the Model ‘A’ Victoria Phaeton, built by the Fritchle Automobile & Battery Company. Critics dismissed the manufacturer’s claims as a publicity stunt, and so to prove them wrong – and to annoy his competitors – on 31 October 1908 the company’s proprietor, American engineer Oliver Fritchle, set off to drive his electric two-seater the 1,800 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York City.

It was an historic feat and, having become an overnight celebrity, Fritchle watched the orders pour in. Blanket publicity ensured his company transformed from a local auto manufacturer into a household name. A century later, when Tesla announced its intention to make a luxury electric car that could “go more than 200 miles on a single charge”, the company described its plans in remarkably similar vocabulary to Fritchle’s advertisements. Though not identical. To be fair to Elon Musk, he’s not on record as saying his Model S was “the most attractive lady’s car ever offered to the public.”

Oliver Parker Fritchle was born in Mount Hope, Ohio in 1874 – the era of the newly invented typewriter and the economic panic created by the 1873 New York stock market crash. Little is known of his formative years other than what can be gleaned from Wilbur F Stone’s 1918 History of Colorado which explains that he spent five years at Ohio Wesleyan University and two at Ohio State University, where he was apparently fond of stating that he would “like to do something extraordinary.” He graduated towards the end of the 19th century with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, following which he worked for a further two years a chemical engineer at the National Steel Company where he began experimenting with storage batteries and investigating their potential suitability for powering vehicles.

Transferring into the smelting industry in Colorado, Fritchle became an industrial chemist working in ore analysis at the Argo gold mine in Idaho Springs. His faith in his abilities would be shaken to the core when, having been given a rock sample for laboratory analysis, he determined that it contained the element radium, which he deemed worthless. To Fritchle’s chagrin, radium would in the early 20th century become a fashionable panacea on which colossal fortunes were built. As one of his biographers explains: “As if to make up for this colossal mistake, Fritchle in 1902 pioneered a process for the analysis and refinement of tungsten ores that became the basis for a method applied for decades.”

Portrait of Oliver Fritchle (1874 - 1951) -

At the turn of the century there were three technologies competing to propel the new mode of motorised travel: steam, the gasoline internal combustion engine and electricity. With his professional focus moving away from the extraction industry to automotive, as a chemist Fritchle was attracted to the last of these options, which was the main challenger to market-dominant steam. Fascinated by the possibilities for battery powered cars, in 1903 he established the O P Fritchle Garage Company in Denver, Colorado having been granted a patent for his first lead-acid battery. While his batteries steadily improved, increasing the performance and range of his clients’ vehicles, Fritchle was unhappy with the standard of car design his products were going into, and in 1908 – the year Henry Ford introduced the mass-produced Model T – he launched the Fritchle Automobile & Battery Company to manufacture his own vehicles.

Free to innovate on his own terms, Fritchle made gains that would halve the power consumption – effectively doubling the range – relative to his competitors. This was achieved in part through the practical application of what was described then as ‘electric braking’ but is known today as regenerative breaking. While the idea that a decelerating motor could be used to recharge a battery was hardly new, for it to be successfully integrated Fritchle needed to develop his own controller. He also devised an ingenious solution for indicating available driving distance from the batteries. Called the Fritchle Milostat, the instrument was a simple battery-mounted hydrometer calibrated to display remaining battery charge as a percentage rather than as specific gravity which had been the norm up until this point. While the battery system allowed the car to travel the much advertised 100 miles or more on a single overnight charge, the drawback was that this could only be realistically achieved over light and level terrain. Fritchle batteries generally lasted for more than 10,000 miles and could be replaced at a cost of US$208.

As the Colorado Heritage Magazine explains: “because there were few parts manufacturers, Fritchle had to build his own axles, steering mechanisms, motors, speed controllers, batteries, and bodies—everything but the tires—in a garage at the rear of 1618 Pennsylvania Street. Striving to save weight so his cars could go longer distances than other electric vehicles, Fritchle employed other innovations: instead of using heavy iron frames, he utilized laminated ash, which he said would bend on collision and then return to its original shape.”

Over the next decade the Fritchle Automobile & Battery Company would go on to produce a series of models in a range of formats: coupe, roadster, torpedo, tourer, brougham. The Victoria Phaeton became the best known and was vigorously marketed as an “ideal lady’s carriage,” built “of the highest quality of materials, workmanship and finish, calculated to give maximum satisfaction.” It was also calculated to generate publicity for the small-time auto manufacturer, with Fritchle goading his competitors to an endurance test: “We take pleasure in extending a general invitation to all manufacturers of electric automobiles to participate with us. We suggest that this be made a race between two points.”

That there were no takers played into Fritchle’s hands as he was able to leverage the timidity of the opposition into his advertising. With the only challenge facing the automotive engineer being to successfully complete the ‘race’, in late October 1908 Fritchle embarked on his month-long road trip, planning his route around the availability of charging facilities. His confidence is his car was such that he took no spares except for one tyre and and extra inner tube, along with some ammonia and sulfuric acid with which to service the batteries which accounted for nearly a third of the car’s overall weight of 950kg – almost exactly half that of the modern Tesla Model S.

Fritchle’s 29-day cross-country trip was both successful and uneventful. Averaging 90 miles per charge he only needed to replace one tyre, one fuse and brake linings. Arguably the only glitch in proceedings was when a battery miscalculation in Iowa meant that he needed to be towed for two miles to a recharging station. He repaid the debt by towing a stricken fossil-powered Oldsmobile for ten miles in York, Pennsylvania before rolling victorious into New York on 28 November.

I'd like to do something extraordinary

Oliver Fritchle

At the dawn of the 20th century the problem with electric cars was that they were expensive. With the Victoria coming in at $2000, it was three times the cost of an average gasoline powered automobile. Worldwide discoveries of large petroleum reserves caused the EV market to shrink further, leaving only a few niches (such as golf carts) to flourish. If that weren’t enough, the EV sector was dealt a hammer blow when Charles Kettering patented his electrical ignition starter, effectively paving the way for the fossil-powered internal combustion engine to establish its monopoly over 20th century vehicle propulsion.

The impending demise of the electric car presented a serious dilemma to Fritchle who had to decide whether to stick with electrics, switch to the internal combustion engine or quit. Bowing to the inevitable, in 1917 the last EVs rolled off the assembly line that had turned out some 500 automobiles, trucks and even one racing car. Once again Fritchle was forced to change direction, re-emerging as the Fritchle Electric Company that designed and sold renewable wind power generation systems, building wind-electric plants in twenty states and overseas. In 1923 Fritchle moved to Chicago to work for the Buick car manufacturer.

By the 1930s Fritchle had relocated to Long Beach, California where the once undisputed king of the EV continued in the electric and automobile fields until his retirement in 1941. He died in Long Beach a decade later on 15 August 1951, and it would be another 50 years before electric cars once again made their way into the mainstream. One of the few surviving Fritchle automobiles can be seen on display at the History Colorado Center. 

More late great engineers