On November 16, 1901, a spare, low-slung car called the “Torpedo Racer”—basically a square platform on bicycle wheels—breaks the world speed record for electric cars in Coney Island, New York. The car’s builder and pilot, an engineer named Andrew Riker, managed to coax his machine one mile down the straight dirt track in just 63 seconds (that’s about 57 mph; today, by contrast, the world speed record for an electric vehicle is about 245 mph). The battery-powered Torpedo Racer held onto its record for ten years.
Riker’s Torpedo Racer was the fastest, but not the first, working electric car in the U.S. The first one was built in 1891 by an Iowan named William Morrison. It had a 4-horsepower motor, a 24-cell battery that weighed almost 800 pounds (the whole car weighed about twice that), and could go about 14 miles per hour at top speed. The Morrison car was an amazing innovation, but not many people were ready to buy one. A few years later, however, the Pope Manufacturing Company of Connecticut sold quite a few of its Columbia Electric Phaetons, which were heavier than Morrison’s machines but could still travel at a whopping 15 miles per hour.
Unlike Morrison and the engineers at the Pope Company, Riker concentrated on building electric racecars. In September 1896, one of his machines won the country’s first-ever automobile race, five laps around a one-mile dirt horse-racing track in Cranston, Rhode Island. (The Riker electric finished the race in a little more than 15 minutes.) Riker cars could maintain reasonably fast speeds over long distances, too: In April 1900, a relative of the Torpedo Racer won a 50-mile cross-country race on Long Island. It was the only battery-powered car in the field of racers.
Likewise, Riker’s was the only electric car in the 1901 Long-Island-Automobile-Club-sponsored race at Coney Island. Against eight gas-powered cars and six steam-powered ones, all stripped down to frames and wheels to eliminate unnecessary weight (Riker’s navigator didn’t even have a seat; he just sat on the back of the car, clinging to its side as it whisked down the track), the Torpedo Racer finished the race in third place.