The Fritchle Electric Automobile was an early, fully electric car designed in Denver in the early 1900s. The Fritchle stood as an example of the early period of automotive design, when the internal combustion engine had not yet secured its place as the most popular design for the burgeoning industry. Today, as electric cars are slowly making a comeback, the Fritchle’s historical significance remains as an example of an early, successful electric car at a time when there was no infrastructure to support it.
Oliver Parker Fritchle was born on September 15, 1874, in Mount Hope, Ohio. He was an accomplished student, excelling at the most difficult of chemistry and engineering courses. Fritchle graduated in 1896 from Ohio State University with a degree in chemistry, and became fond of saying, “I’d like to do something extraordinary.” Fritchle believed that processing gold and silver in Colorado would be extraordinary, and in 1899 he moved to Frisco to learn the chemical processes of smelting and refining. He became affiliated with the Boston and Colorado Smelting Works, which was among the principal ore-processing enterprises in the Mountain west. Moving to Denver, Fritchle became a commercial chemist and had an experience that would forever shake his faith in himself. A man entered his laboratory seeking analysis of a rock, and Fritchle determined that it contained uranium, which he proclaimed was worthless. As if to make up for this colossal mistake, Fritchle in 1902 pioneered a process for the analysis and refinement of tungsten ores that became the basis for a method applied for decades.
At the turn of the century, however, the new phenomenon of motorized travel was generating wide public interest, and Fritchle began to gravitate away from chemistry toward automotive power. Three methods of propelling machines existed: steam, electricity, and the internal combustion gasoline engine. Fritchle was fascinated with the possibilities of electric power, and in 1903 he abandoned smelting and chemistry to start his own electrical-engineering business.
The first practical electric vehicle was built in September 1890 by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa. At the turn of the century, 38 percent of automobiles built in the United States were electrically powered, far surpassing the modest 22 percent of gasoline-powered vehicles, and challenging the 40 percent powered by steam. By 1900, an electric car had won the world’s first hill climb and held the world record for a “flying kilometer.” Electric cars set other firsts, not all of them positive: the first automobile fatality was said to have occurred when an electric car ran over a pedestrian, and an electric ambulance sped the mortally wounded President William McKinley to an emergency hospital in 1901.
Oliver Fritchle had been gaining experience in repairing other electric autos for his Denver clientele, and now he realized that the success and future of electric motive power depended on the sophistication of rechargeable batteries. His experimenting resulted in a twenty-eight-cell, 400- to 600-pound battery pack that powered an eight horsepower motor. On one overnight charge, a one-ton Fritchle could travel 100 miles or so over moderately flat land, a remarkable technological accomplishment. No other electric cars had batteries like the Fritchles.
Fritchle’s first order to build a vehicle using this battery system arrived in 1904. In 1906 seven Fritchles were built, and by the following August, he had twenty orders for two- and four-passenger models. Because there were few parts manufacturers, Fritchle had to build his own axles, steering mechanisms, motors, speed controllers, batteries, and bodies—everything but the tires—in a garage at the rear of 1618 Pennsylvania Street. Striving to save weight so his cars could go longer distances than other electric vehicles, Fritchle employed other innovations: instead of using heavy iron frames, he utilized laminated ash, which he said would bend on collision and then return to its original shape. The growing company now moved from the Pennsylvania Street address to 1445 Clarkson Street and then to a huge former skating rink at 1510 Clarkson Street at the corner of East Colfax Avenue.
Fritchles were sold through dealerships as far distant as Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. By 1912, Fritchle offered models from a five-passenger brougham for $3,600, a four-passenger roadster for $2,500, a two-passenger roadster for $2,100, and a half-ton truck for $2,000. By August 1912, the Daniels & Fisher department store in Denver had two Fritchle trucks in service, making deliveries at an estimated three cents per package. Fritchle was among some twenty automobile-manufacturing plants functioning at one time or another in Colorado between 1900 and 1918. The Fritchle was a good car for its day, and one of the best electric vehicles made anywhere. They were expensive, however; a Ford of the same era cost $440 to $550. Because of its birthplace in Denver, it was designed not merely for the travel of city streets: in 1908 a Fritchle became the first electric cars to bounce over rocks four miles to the top of Lookout Mountain west of town.
Oliver Fritchle loved to needle his competitors, and the idea of an endurance test intrigued him. Thus, in September 1908, he announced that he would run an assembly line Fritchle from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City. Fritchle challenged: “We take pleasure in extending a general invitation to all manufacturers of electric automobiles to participate with us. We suggest that this be made a race between two points.” His challenge had no takers, but he decided to go anyway. Embarking alone in his $2,000 two-seat Victoria on the damp and cold morning of October 31, 1908, Fritchle selected Lincoln rather than Denver as a starting place because he was uncertain whether there were adequate charging stations between Denver and Lincoln. Embarking on an adventure that nobody had undertaken before, Fritchle took one extra tire and one inner tube, tools, a small iron jack, a charging cable, battery grids, a rope and block-and-tackle (in case he hit a mud hole), a few maps, two suitcases of clothing, a tripod and camera, tire chains, a flashlight for “reading sign boards,” a canvas water bag, fuses, sulfuric acid and ammonia to service the batteries, and two lap robes. He brought no spare parts save the tire, testifying to the incredible confidence that Fritchle had in his little electric car.
The Fritchle weighed 2,100 pounds, 800 of which were in batteries, and it occasionally carried seventy-five pounds of accumulated mud. Roads were incredibly bad, and routes were unmarked except for the occasional faded sign board. Near Pittsburgh, Fritchle traded a free charging for repairing the electric system of a nickelodeon theater. At York, Pennsylvania, “a big policeman grabbed me and directed me to the police station to secure a Pennsylvania license plate that I had neglected to obtain in Pittsburgh.” The same thing happened in New Jersey.
Fritchle had only one flat, which was incredible given the state of tire-making at the time, but he had to reline the brakes (with camel hair) once after burning them out descending the Allegheny Mountains. At 6 pm on November 28, 1908, the little Fritchle electric car rolled up to its destination in front of the Hotel Knickerbocker in Times Square, New York City, the odometer registering 1,800 miles. The trip, completed with no breakdowns in twenty-eight days (the actual driving time was twenty days) was a success, providing Oliver Fritchle with substantial publicity and elevating him from a strictly local auto manufacturer to one of national recognition. From New York, Fritchle made a side trip to Washington, DC, where he drove up the circular driveway to the US capitol building. Fritchle hoped to build an eastern factory in Washington, but it never materialized. Fritchle and the car returned to Denver by rail.
End of an Era
Fritchle 100-Mile electric cars were made in Denver until 1917, when electric starters for gasoline cars were perfected. That improvement, more than any other factor, caused the decline of the electric automobile. By that time, the Fritchle factory in Denver had turned out some 500 automobiles, trucks, and even one racing car. The impending demise of the electric car presented a serious dilemma to Oliver Fritchle; he had to decide whether to stick with electrics, switch to the internal combustion engine, or quit. In 1917 the Fritchle plant closed down. The company became involved in wind-generated electricity, constructing eighty wind-electric plants in some twenty states and overseas between 1918 and 1923. Fritchle moved to Chicago in 1923 to work for the Buick motor car company.
He was active in Chicago’s electric and radio industries until 1932, when he relocated to Long Beach, California. He remained in the electric and automobile fields until his retirement in 1941. He died in Long Beach on August 15, 1951.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “Colorado’s Fritchle Electric Auto: Cross-Country in 1908,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 19 (1999).