The Baker “Torpedo” is a very significant — we might even say the ultimate — example of the pioneering phase in aerodynamics research, which was based on substantially empirical but nevertheless effective forms that turned out to be basically correct. Indeed, the Torpedo’s “perfect semi-cast” body/shell was subsequently taken as a benchmark in scientific research in aerodynamics, especially in Paul Jaray’s 1920s studies and patents.
In 1902, of course, research into aerodynamics had not yet benefited from any contribution from the field of aviation, with the exception of what had been learned from the very first aircraft, such as the 1898 Santos-Dumont airship — Zeppelins were not seen until 1903 — and Jean Marie Le Bris’ 1868 glider known as “the Artificial Albatross”.
Even though these were still early pioneering years as regards the use of electric motors in automobiles, it is worth noting that by 1900 electric traction cars already made up 38% of the US market, and that the manufacturer who produced the largest number of these vehicles was one Walter C. Baker. As a manufacturer, Walter, like many of his competitors, was intrigued by the idea that road races could enhance the performance of automobiles. Convinced that this was the case, he entered his “Torpedo” in the Automobile Club of America Speed Event, a race held on Staten Island’s South Boulevard. Baker’s car was constructed around an iron and wooden chassis. The driver was seated centrally, very low down, and a “flight engineer” sat behind him. The electric motor was mounted in the rear of the car and moved the axle by means of two chains. The energy needed to power the electric motor came from 40 lead-acid batteries arranged symmetrically around the crew. All this was mounted on four wheels with 36-inch diameters and 3-inch tires. The car had front-wheel drive and a tiny driving wheel. The driver saw out through very small openings set in an extremely small hood/roof, which was only just large enough to accommodate the occupants’ heads. The entire body, including the wheel discs, was covered in waxed canvas and hand-painted black.
Baker considered the car capable of reaching a speed of around 130 mph. When his Torpedo was summoned onto the track, crowds of people surged forwards and gathered along the side of the road. Baker accelerated down the boulevard, which was basically a mile-long straight road with a slight curve mid-way along. Everything went fine until the Torpedo reached this curve, where, probably due to a sudden movement of the driving wheel — this was not only tiny, but also located very close to the driver’s shoulder —, the car veered off course. On touching the tram tracks with its front wheels, it span out of control and ploughed into the crowd, killing two people and injuring a further one hundred. Baker and his engineer were saved only by the fact that they were wearing seatbelts. Indeed, this was the first car in motoring history to be fitted with them.
It has been estimated that Baker’s Torpedo was travelling at 104 mph (around 168 km/h) at the time of the accident, but it was to be another two years before speeds of this kind were officially recognized.