Columbia Could’ve Been the Tesla of 1908

Hannah DeWitt
· 4 min read
Electric vehicles
(EVs) are just starting to become more popular, but the idea has been around much longer than you might think. Over 100 years ago, manufacturers like the Columbia Automobile Company were releasing
brand new EVs
and even beating out the gas-powered competition.
One such vehicle was the 1908 Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton, a horseless carriage that ran solely on electricity. According to
The Drive
, Columbia was poised to lead the U.S. into an all-electric future as Tesla is doing now, before Columbia’s fall into bankruptcy.
Columbia was ahead of its time with the brand's release of electric cars.

Who was the Columbia Automobile Company?

The Victoria Phaeton was released by the Columbia Automobile Company in 1908. The company was founded in 1899 by Albert Pope, who previously found success making bicycles but decided to move to auto manufacturing as cars became more widespread.
Columbia experienced massive success during its short run, breaking multiple sales and performance records. One of their models broke the standing EV range record with 96 miles on a charge, and they became the first automaker to make and sell over 1,000 cars in one year.
Their Victoria Phaeton became so popular that
famous figures
like Teddy Roosevelt and Queen Victoria each purchased one. Electric vehicles like the Victoria Phaeton were popular for many reasons, the biggest reason being how easy they were to use and maintain.
Combustion and steam power, the two other competing power sources of the time, were unwieldy and loud. Winding a combustion car wrong could cause severe injury, while steam power required an extensive amount of time to heat the boiler and get things running.
EVs, though, ran quietly and quickly with contained power sources. They were even easy to charge, with home charging units and public “electric garages” available to use. 
They took the U.S. vehicle market by storm and represented almost 40% of America’s 4,192 registered vehicles, beating combustion engines by over 20%.
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The 1908 Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton

The Victoria Phaeton itself had a rather simple layout, though it was complicated to drive by today’s standards. 
The vehicle had a
rear-wheel drive
electric motor powered by a collection of 48-volt lead-acid batteries. It seated two and its max speed was just 15 miles per hour. There was no windshield or steering wheel, which was a bit uncommon by that point, but more old-fashioned than strange.
It cost $1,600 in 1908 or the equivalent of around $44,000 today.
You could start the Phaeton simply by sticking in the key and turning the dial to “on.” However, the rest of the workings are a bit complicated. You could turn the carriage with your right hand by moving a tiller bar that was bent over the seat and connected to the left side of the vehicle.
A hand lever located to the left of the driver’s seat was used to control the speed. It had five speed options, the fifth getting it up to top speed. 
There were also two sets of brakes controlled by two corresponding pedals on the floor. One controlled a brake pad, which was used for regular slowing and stopping, and the other was generally used when parking the carriage.

Why did Columbia fail?

Bad management, slow updates, and modernization caused serious financial issues for Columbia. By 1910, the company was bankrupt, and their holding company dissolved only a few years later.
Afterward, combustion-engine vehicles surpassed EVs in popularity, allowing them to dominate the market as they do today.
It’s a good time to start thinking about buying an EV again, and there’s a wide range of options from the Tesla Model 3 to the
Nissan Leaf
. If you need help insuring it, look no further than the
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