The electric auto almost triumphed - Power source of '31 carstill a mystery

By A.C. Greene 
Published 01-24-1993
The Dallas Morning News


Not long ago, Texas Sketches told the story of Henry "Dad' Garrett and his son C.H.'s water-fueled automobile, which was successfully demonstrated in 1935 at White Rock Lake in Dallas. 

Eugene Langkop of Dallas (a Packard lover, like so many of us) notes that the "wonder car' of the future may be a resurrection of the electric car. It uses no gasoline, no oil -- just some grease fittings -- has no radiator to fill or freeze, no carburetor problems, no muffler to replace and gives off no pollutants. 

Famous former electrics include Coluymbia, Rauch & Lang and Detroit Electric. 

Dallas had electric delivery trucks in the 1920s and '30s. Many electric delivery vehicles were used in big cities into the 1960s. 

The problem with electrics was slow speed and short range. 

Within the past decade two Richardson men, George Thiess and Jack Hooker, claimed to have used batteries operating on magnesium from seawater to increase the range of their electric automobile from 100 miles to 400 or 500 miles. 

But it is a mystery car once demonstrated by Nicholas Tesla, developer of alternating current, that might have made electrics triumphant. 

Supported by Pierce-Arrow Co. and General Electric in 1931, he took the gasoline engine from a new Pierce-Arrow and replaced it with an 80-horsepower alternating-current electric motor with no external power source. 

At a local radio shop he bought 12 vacuum tubes, some wires and assorted resisters, and assembled them in a circuit box 24 inches long, 12 inches wide and 6 inches high, with a pair of 3-inch rods sticking out. Getting into the car with the circuit box in the front seat beside him, he pushed the rods in, announced, "We now have power,' and proceeded to test drive the car for a week, often at speeds of up to 90 mph. 

As it was an alternating-current motor and there were no batteries involved, where did the power come from? 

Popular responses included charges of "black magic,' and the sensitive genius didn't like the skeptical comments of the press. He removed his mysterious box, returned to his laboratory in New York -- and the secret of his power source died with him. 

A.C. Greene is an author and Texas historian who lives in Salado.