by Michael Lamm, Courtesy Ironstone Concours d’Elegance
Photos courtesy National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library
Many thanks to Michael Lamm for providing this very interesting article.


Starting lineup in Cleveland contrasts streamlined Torpedo Kid (999) with typical racers of 1903. That’s the Oldsmobile Pirate at right. “One of these cars is not like the others. One of these cars is just not the same.” Maybe what Walter really invented was a time machine.


Back in 1902-03, Walter C. Baker built three streamlined electric racing cars. Called “Torpedoes,” these all-but-forgotten electrics should be remembered for four good reasons: 1) They allowed Walter Baker to become the first man in history to break the 100-mph barrier in a motorcar; 2) the Torpedoes’ bodies were remarkably streamlined, decades ahead of anything similar; 3) because Walter Baker regularly crashed his cars, none of his speed marks went into the record books. Even in his own day, he became known as  “Bad Luck Baker;” and 4) what probably saved his life in all those crashes were plain, simple shoulder harnesses, an idea again much too modern for the times.

At the beginning of the 20th century, electric cars held the world land speed record (WLSR). Two electrics in particular kept re-upping the international mark: the French-built Jeantaud and the Belgian Jenatzy. Until 1902, electrics remained considerably faster than piston-engined cars.

Tall, wiry, with a jaunty mustache and tinted goggles, Walter Baker decided in 1901 to go after the WLSR electrically. He believed that speed would mitigate the common (and correct) perception that electric cars lacked endurance. So he took $10,000 of his own money (roughly $257,000 today) and began to lay out an electric racer. But unlike other builders, Baker recognized the value of aerodynamics. He also figured that a sleek, fast racer would impress the American buying public.

The Torpedo’s driver and passenger sat in tandem on webbed, hammock-like seats, strapped in with four-inch canvas shoulder harnesses. Their heads poked up into an isinglass bubble surrounded by a cork crashpad. Baker mounted 11 batteries plus a 14-horsepower Elwell-Parker electric motor behind the seats and ran double chains to the rear axle.


Driver and brakeman sat in tandem in original Torpedo. Both wore shoulder harnesses. Batteries and 14-bhp electric motor stood in rear.


On Memorial Day 1902, May 31, the Automobile Club of America held speed trials on the streets of Staten Island, N.Y. Baker intended the Torpedo to set records that would overwhelm the makers of steam- and piston-powered machines. Rumor had it that the Torpedo was good for 120 mph, which at that time was roughly double the WLSR.

Baker chose to drive the Torpedo himself. His passenger and brakeman was the company’s chief mechanic and electrician, E.E. Denzer. Baker and Denzer covered the flying kilometer in 16 seconds, running exactly 100 mph, and they were still accelerating when Baker lost control crossing a set of trolley tracks. His steering went limp and, as Denzer yanked the brake lever, the car left the road and smashed sideways into the crowd.


The two Torpedo Kids were smaller and painted white, as opposed to the original Baker Torpedo of 1902. All three cars broke speed records, but only unofficially.



Baker Torpedo set world land speed record on Staten Island in 1902, then crashed soon after this picture was taken.


Two spectators were knocked flat but not injured. A third died instantly. The Torpedo spun 180 degrees, then stopped. Baker and Denzer stepped out unscathed and were immediately arrested for manslaughter. But the police released them just as quickly, because the crowd had crossed protective barricades.

Despite the accident, Baker had set a new record for the flying kilometer, albeit unofficially. The Torpedo beat Jenatzy’s WLSR by nearly 35 mph, and at that speed, aerodynamics definitely played a role. But due to the accident, the Torpedo’s kilometer mark didn’t enter the record books.


At the turn of the century, electric cars were much faster than those using steam or internal combustion.

In 1902, Walter Baker built two smaller, lighter racers, both called “Torpedo Kid.”  These were single seaters and again stood waist high. Streamlined and low, they used 3/4-horse motors from Baker Electric passenger cars. In Oct. 1902, in Cleveland and Detroit, Walter Baker supposedly drove one Torpedo Kid to record speeds, but these again were unofficial, so the actual figures remain uncertain.

Then, in Aug. 1903, Baker entered both Kids in a special event for electric cars near Cleveland. A man named Chisholm drove one of the Kids. He started on the pole and was doing fine until he got sideswiped by a Waverly Electric. Chisholm crashed and knocked down four spectators. No one was badly hurt, but Walter Baker, who’d been driving the second Kid, decided to hang up his goggles and stop running into people.

In 1915, Walter Baker merged his company with another manufacturer of electric cars, Rauch & Lang, and then retired from business to devote himself to his hobbies: ham radio and piloting airplanes. He passed away in 1955.


Walter C. Baker gives the V-for-Victory sign from one of his Torpedo Kids. He continued to build a line of successful electric passenger cars, but as electrics and steamers lost favor, his company merged with Rauch & Lang, becoming Baker-Raulang, which merged with Otis Elevator in 1954. Baker retired in 1915, a wealthy man.


  1. Gary, what a great story! I’ve been vaguely aware of the Baker Torpedo Kids for years but could never find much info on them. Thankyou for assembling all these great photos and filling in the blanks. When you look at the aero on these cars you realize just how visonary Baker was. I wasn’t aware that the first car was a tandem machine. In fact had never seen that picture. The #999 car in Cleveland shows just how advanced these cars were in relation to the rest of the world. Peter Brock

  2. Stan Mott

    What a delicious tidbit of automotive history! I’m particularly fond of the opening photo; the Torpedo Kid looks as if it had just entered the line up from outer space. And that name, the “Torpedo Kid”, is so perfect for the little underdog. (“Hey, kid, ya tink ya can last ten seconds out on da track?”) I’m still laughing!

    These fabulous machines are a great tribute to Walther C. Baker’s independent thought, bubbling creativity and sense of humor. Thanks Michael and Gary. Stan Mott

  3. Rogerio Machado

    I’ve been observing those racers for years. They really make an advance on the aerodynamics efforts. Like th Bugatti Tank issued two decades later the rear session of the body probably make an ascending and dangerous force. Very interesting.

  4. Great story indeed! Thanks for yet another look into some obscure history. I sit here at my desk at work on Baker Ave. in Cleveland OH (the former location of Baker Electric) as I write this.

  5. Bob Marcks

    This is a revelation to me, in large part because his speed records were unofficial. But what’s difficult to understand was that his vehicles and records had to be well known to automotive leaders of the time, but had no effect on the appearance of American cars for three decades.

  6. Hec Espiriti

    What a great story, reminds me of my old soap box car on steroids. The man was a genius way ahead of it time. I wonder if any of these cars still exist. Thanks Gary.

  7. george gallo

    A pic of the Torpedo Kid is at a Perkins on Volusia near Daytona Speedway. As learned from the ideas of Christie, and Tesla, and Bleriot and Billy Mitchell, the vanguard visions of the era were far more advanced than the prevailing technologist / blacksmiths and their investors were able to fathom. The Baker Torpedoes were far more “aerodynamic” and pure of form than the chickenwire biplanes were yet demonstrating.

  8. Although impossible to tell from these photos, it would not be surprising if Baker’s inspired thinking included a belly pan. He could not have been ignorant of the drag-making undercarriage. As I write this, a photo I took of Rocky Agusta’s Callaway Corvette 03/95 carbon fiber belly pan last month is at my elbow. Probably old hat for Walter Baker.

  9. Brett Baker

    Any info on whether any of the Torpedoes or frames still exist would be greatly appreciated.

  10. Dean Bird

    Quite interesting! Being from Newton, Massachusetts I knew of the Stanley’s and their high speed steamer runs, but had no idea of the Baker electric powered speed!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

clear formSubmit