What Make was Ottawa’s First Car?

What Make was Ottawa’s First Car?

Last week we went looking for Ottawa’s first automobile and came up with a definite candidate. According to both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal, the capital’s first documented automobile was an electric car driven on the streets of Ottawa by Thomas Ahearn on September 11, 1899.

We know there are other less-well documented candidates for the first car in the capital, and we’ll get to them in the next few weeks,

First we wanted to stick a definite pin in the timeline. Now we’re interested in the make and model of electric car Ahearn brought to Ottawa.

Nerd challenge! But it’s a challenge for which the Journal left us some clues in a lengthy description of the vehicle published on September 7, 1899, when the car was being assembled the workshops of the Ottawa Car Company on Slater Street.

According to the Journal, Ahearn’s car was a Stanhope modeled after a horse-drawn carriage. At the time, early automobiles were often designated in terms of their horse and buggy equivalents and therefore called wagons, dos-a-dos, surrey, Stanhope, Victoria and so on.

So we know the model was a Stanhope. How about the make? The Journal didn’t say, but the paper did report that: 

“Sometime ago Mr. T. Ahearn and Mr. W.W. Wylie went down to Madison Square Garden, New York, to the automobile show. Out of the many horseless carriages on display they chose this style which is made in Chicago.”

Let the nerd-work begin! And it’s amazing what you can find out these days.

A Fischer Equipment Co. Stanhope electric automobile from 1899. Fisher supplied bodies to the Woods Motor Company and was taken over by the Woods company in 1899.

 

Fisher Electric Stanhope 1899

Beginning with the fact that the first New York Auto show didn’t take place in Madison Square Garden until the Fall of 1900. So that’s not the “auto show” Ahearn and Wylie went to.

On the other hand, a magazine called The Hub gave a lengthy description of a show that Madison Square Garden did host in the Spring of 1899. That was the “Electric Show,” which ran from May 8 to June 3 (see the picture at the top of the page).

Better yet, according to the Hub, the most prominent displays at the Electric Show were of electric automobiles. The magazine even offered a floor plan of the exhibits, showing which electric vehicle companies were there. They included American Electric Vehicle, Columbia Automobile, Crocker and Wheeler, Indiana Bicycle Company (which made the Waverly), Riker Electric and the Woods Motor Vehicle Company.

It makes sense that Ahearn and Wylie would go to the electric show. Ahearn was, after all, one of the owners of Ottawa Electric and the Ottawa Electric Railway, not to mention the Ottawa Car Company, which made electric streetcars as well as wagons and carriages. Wylie was the Superintendent of Ottawa Car. Both men would have been interested in the many displays for lighting, generators, and other electrical equipment at the show. Surely, they had to be interested in the new electric vehicles that would eventually kill off their streetcar and carriage business.

So, I’m taking it for granted that Ahearn and Wylie went to the Electric Show. Two of the companies exhibiting cars at the show were from Chicago. One was American Electric and the other was the Woods Motor Co. 

Ahearn’s car must have been one or the other, but which one was it? 

Unfortunately, the history of these early electric car companies is very confusing. Clinton Edgar Woods was an inventor with patents on electric vehicles. He wrote the first book on the electric automobile, published in 1900. The Woods Motor company named after him was established in 1899. However, Woods is also said to have started American Electric, incorporated in 1895. Adding to the confusion, a letter to the editor of the Hub indicates that American Electric vehicles were actually made by Indiana Bicycle until December of 1898. All three companies were apparently supplied with bodies by the Fischer Equipment Co. of Chicago, which was taken over by the Woods Company in 1899, but marketed electrics under its own name until then.

The good news is that the Stanhopes produced by all three companies looked very similar, so whichever car Ahearn bought it would have looked like the vehicles in our photographs!

Fisher Electric Stanhope 1899

A Woods Motor Company electric Stanhope as illustrated in the C.E Woods’ book on the care and construction of electric vehicles, published in 1900. The book says the Stanhope weighed 2220 pounds, much of the weight being accounted for by the 40-cell battery. Horsepower was a nominal 5 hp that could take two people up grades as steep as 12 or 14 percent. Picture from Hathi Trust. 

Still, American or Woods?

The Hub said the Woods company had the most prominent display at the Electric Show and attracted the most attention. It also noted that the Woods vehicles were more solidly constructed than many others, using strong metal forgings where other companies relied on bicycle tubing.

As a manufacturer of streetcars and carriages, I think Ahearn would have been drawn to the sturdier construction. As an inventor, I think Ahearn would also have been drawn to Woods. Why would he purchase a car from American, the company the inventor had left, when he could purchase one from the inventor himself? 

The deciding factor for me, however, is something else. At the time Ahearn ordered his car, some of the biggest capitalists in North America were getting ready to invest in the Woods company. This is likely why the new company was incorporated in New Jersey in April of 1899 (New Jersey being very amenable to the formation of corporations, wherever their actual place of business). Woods himself would have been brought in so the new company could control his patents. In any event, the Woods Motor Company was recapitalized in the Fall of 1899 to the tune of $10 million dollars.

That was a heck of a lot of money in those days. A major move. Who were the investors?

There’s a bit of surprise here. There were some legendary American industrialists and financiers like August Belmont, but the directors of the new company also a group of wealthy and powerful Canadians, including president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce George Cox, president of the National Trust Company of Toronto J.W. Flavelle , Director of the Canadian Pacific Railway W.D. Mathews and finally no less a figure than Sir William Van Horne, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the entire Canadian Pacific System, and the man who drove the Last Spike. Quite a crew!

These men elected Frederick Nicholls of Toronto to be the new president of the Woods Motor Vehicle Company. He was a another major capitalist from Toronto, who had previously worked together with Cox, Mathews and Van Horne on various financial schemes, many of the having to do with electricity. In fact, in 1899 Nicholls was president of the National Electric Light Association of the United States. He was heavily involved in the development of electrical power in Toronto and later at Niagara Falls. In 1900 he also became Vice-President and manager of Canadian General Electric. There’s even an Ottawa connection. Immigrating from England, Nicholls came to Ottawa in 1874, and married Florence Theresa Elizabeth Pitkin here in 1875.

A Woods Motor Company electric Stanhope from 1903. The picture shows how little difference there was between the Woods and the original Fischer electrics, and also how little the models changed over the years. 

 

Fisher Electric Stanhope 1899

That’s a lot of financiers and directors. The point is that Ahearn was in the electrical industry himself. He knew Frederic Nicholls and knew of the other financiers involved in the Woods Motor Co. (if only by reputation). Nicholls would have been busy preparing to re-organize the Woods company at the very time Ahearn went to New York. It’s even possible that’s why Ahearn went to New York to see the electric automobiles in the first place. Once there, it’s hard to imagine that Ahearn would have bought American, when he could have bought “Canadian,” as it were. 

Was Ahearn on a research mission for Canadian capitalists looking to get in on the next big thing? Answering that question is beyond the scope of this article. We wanted to know the make of the first documented automobile to run on Ottawa streets.

The answer, though not a dead certainty, is that Thomas Ahearn’s automobile was a Wood’s Electric Stanhope. Look at the pictures and imagine driving that around city streets!

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