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Electric Company

By Adam Joseph

Over the course of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance’s 70 years, it has showcased full classes of alternative fuel cars and even steam-powered cars. But until now, there’s never been a full class—six to eight cars—dedicated to the electric car. “[Electric cars] have a very long history. Engineers are building on inventions that began decades back, and so much of the world is going electric,” says the event’s marketing director, Kandace Hawkinson.

In the automotive industry’s infancy, the gas combustion engine was the outlier. Electric cars were a much easier sell—they didn’t need the front crank to start up, and passengers didn’t have to sit on the engine, a feature that scared many people away from gasoline-powered cars. They were also quieter and provided a much smoother ride.

However, Henry Ford’s new approach to car manufacturing increased production and lower costs. The Model T’s ability to travel long distances fortified gasoline-powered cars as the standard during World War I, driving electric cars into the garage for nearly a century.

Over the past 20 years, electric cars have been coming out of obscurity, propelled in part by a global increase in environmental awareness in tandem with clean air regulatory requirements, technological advances in battery efficiency, and the popularity surrounding Tesla and other vehicle brands.

But the original electric cars don’t resemble the sleek Teslas you see on the road today. They span back to 1896, and are considered automobilia history’s most significant rarities. “You look at some of these cars, and it’s just like a little seat sitting on a battery terminal,” says Hawkinson. “Some barely look like they would fit one person, and some have the old tiller steering, not really a steering wheel, per se.” An 1896 Riker Electric Vehicle Company prototype represents this style and is the earliest electric car in the class. An 1898 model will also be on hand.

Others include a 1912 Baker Electric Victoria, which topped out at 30 miles per hour and passed through four presidential administrations, becoming a White House fixture for First Ladies. It was initially Helen Taft’s car. Starting in 1913, Ellen Wilson and her daughters drove the vehicle, as did Wilson’s second wife, Edith. Florence Harding got behind the wheel in 1921, as did Grace Coolidge, following President Harding’s death in 1923. Since its retirement in 1928, it has been housed at the Henry Ford Museum.

Alongside antique electric cars, some of the most sought-after, high-performance sports cars on the planet are also coming to Concours. The Porsche 917 helped Porsche make its mark in the racing world after winning Le Mans in 1970 and 1971. The car scored further recognition with the movie Le Mans, a fictional account of the storied race, starring Steve McQueen. “Porsche went on to become one of the steadiest winners over the years, but it was the 917 that first brought it,” says Hawkinson.

This year also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Lamborghini Countach— with the scissor doors that have become the brand’s trademark feature. The showcase will be on the 18th fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links and feature the Countach’s evolution from a 1971 prototype that famed racecar driver Valentino hunted down to the final car, released in 1990. “[Ferruccio] Lamborghini was the one that they say established the first supercar with his Miura,” Hawkinson explains. “[A]s the Miura was aging, the Countach took its place. That car brought things into the future. Even when you look at them today, they don’t feel dated; that design still resonates.”

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