Nearly a century before Nissan’s all-electric Leaf and the Chevy Volt promised a new age of gas-free driving, Balboa Park had the “electriquette.”
It was a battery-powered people mover made of wicker that tooled about the Panama-California Exposition grounds in 1915-16.
Thanks to developer and attorney Sandor Shapery, the charming cart built for two made a comeback Thursday with the promise that a whole new fleet could figure into the 2015 expo centennial.
“My first thought was that they would be a great addition to the centennial celebration,” Shapery said by email from India, where he is vacationing.
“It’s a hoot, an absolute hoot,” said Ben Clay, cochairman of the Balboa Park Celebration steering committee.
Betty Peabody, a founder of Friends of Balboa Park, was the first passenger to ride the electriquette inside the history center, with architectural intern Vincent Rivera at the steering arm.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s very smooth, as smooth as glass.”
Shapery said he has spent about $20,000 so far but hopes to mass produce the vehicles at $3,200 apiece and rent them at $5 per hour if park and 2015 officials agree to grant him a concession. The rental in 1915 was $1.
“It is also my intention to take a part of the proceeds and donate them to the Committee of 100 or other park preservation groups,” Shapery said.
Mike Kelly, president of the committee that promotes park restoration projects, said he knew the vehicle was in the works and commended Shapery for taking on the project.
“I want to drive it,” he said.
The original electriquettes were the invention of Clyde H. Osborn, a San Diego attorney, who evidently based them on wicker push chairs popular on seaside resort boardwalks. Osborn also owned the Fritchie electric car dealership in San Diego.
The Electriquette Manufacturing Co. in Los Angeles built and sold the vehicles, which about 300 pounds and were powered by a half-horsepower electric motor.
Articles in newspapers and magazines described the “electric wheel chair” in detail, commenting that they were a cinch to drive.
“They are practically fool-proof, the only possible accident being an occasional jam into a curbstone,” said Motor Age magazine in May 1915.
VIPs, like House Speaker Joe Cannon and a Hindu poet and Nobel prize winner for literature, Sir Rabindranath Tagore, posed in the vehicles. Silent film stars Fatty Arbuckle and Mable Normand fashioned a nearly-14-minute short about the fair around the electriquette. (It is online at the Library of Congress website.)
Even though they traveled no faster than 3 1/2mph, expo organizers held a “race” two weeks after the fair opened. Helen Van Sand won by an eighth of an inch after 20 minutes.
“It was a great, jolly crowd of people, out for a good time, which jammed the street and, with noise-making devices and impromptu hilarious nonsense, they made the best carnival crowd ever released in the city,” the San Diego Union reported Jan. 17, 1915.
Shapery hired preservation architect David Marshall to design the prototype from photographs and written descriptions and had the vehicle body built in China.
Then it was shipped to Boston, where Brad Hunter, an electronics controls expert at MIT, built a control system and drive motor. Hunter also is working on another, much more futuristic Shapery transportation system, a magnetic levitation train that he would like to install in the park, as well.
“It’s slightly smaller than a golf cart and operates much the same way,” Marshall said. “We weren’t sure when we recreated the steering wand how it would operate, but it’s pretty intuitive. It doesn’t take any time at all to get used to.”
The original vehicles operated for eight hours without a charge and by August 1915, they had logged more than 143,000 miles.
“Osborn insists and attempts to prove he has accomplished something for the good of humanity,” a Union article reported.
By 1916 Osborn was in Gulfport, Miss., helping to organize exhibits and concessions at Mississippi Centennial exposition in 1917. There are no further accounts about what happened to Osborn or to his electriquettes.
But there were reports that similar vehicles were used at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, on the boardwalks of Los Angeles beach towns and perhaps sent to the East Coast.
However, Marshall said history is silent on what happened to the San Diego fleet and whether any still exist.