The US Senate once had its own electric cars: two Studebakers that ran underground


One of two 1909 Studebaker electric cars built for underground use [Architect of the U.S. Capitol]

One of two 1909 Studebaker electric cars built for underground use [Architect of the U.S. Capitol]

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One advantage of electric cars is that unlike gasoline or steam cars, they have no emissions.

More than a century ago, that was why the U.S. Capitol acquired two custom-built electric cars, nicknamed “Tommy” and “Peggy.”

They were built by Studebaker, an early and hallowed U.S. car brand that finally folded up shop in 1965.

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A wagonmaker since 1852, Studebaker had started to build and sell cars in 1897, all electrically powered per the dictate of the last founding brother. The company didn’t launch its first gasoline model until 1904.

With the invention of the electric self-starter in 1912, however, the hazard that gasoline-powered vehicles might sprain your wrist or even break your arm when starting them was eliminated—and the superior range and flexibility of gasoline cars soon triumphed over electric vehicles.

In 1913, Studebaker ended production of electric cars and built solely gasoline models for the next 42 years.

The two Capitol electric cars, however, were built by the company in 1909 and sold to the the U.S. Congress (at almost $3,000 apiece) for a very specific purposes: emission-free travel in an underground tunnel that connected the Capitol to the new Russell Senate Office Building.

As a fascinating feature by Hemmings Motor News describes, Tommy and Peggy were unlike any other electric cars offered by the company.

Studebaker built the two cars with a pair of driver’s seats apiece—one facing forward and one in reverse—both equipped with tiller steering.

A single driver would operate the Studebakers over the one-fifth-mile-long tunnel at a blistering 12- to 15-mph top speed, unload his passengers, and then switch to the other seat to make the return trip. Seating both fore and aft of the driver’s seats accommodated up to 12 passengers at a time.

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Why the seats at either end? Elliot Woods, then the Superintendent of the Capitol Buildings and Grounds, had designed the tunnels without sufficient room at either end for a vehicle to turn around.

The tenure of Tommy and Peggy lasted less than a decade, however: by 1916, an electric tram designed by the U.S. Navy was installed in their place. Its successor, resembling a small airport tram connecting terminals, continues to operate today.

The two cars went into storage until they were sold in 1939 for $35 at a government-surplus auction. Peggy eventually ended up at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

Custom U.S. Capitol 1909 Studebaker electric car under restoration at Pennsylvania College of Tech.

Custom U.S. Capitol 1909 Studebaker electric car under restoration at Pennsylvania College of Tech.

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Tommy was put on display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and subsequently acquired by collector William Swigart in 1950.

As the story goes, he strolled into the office of the U.S. Capitol Architect and asked if they had any information on his new purchase—and a secretary handed him the entire history in a thick file, glad to be rid of it.

Swigart restored the electric Studebaker shuttle car in the mid-1950s, but it’s not clear that it ever moved again under its own power.

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For more than 60 years, Tommy sat in the Swigart Automobile Museum in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, until Swigart’s widow Patricia and the museum’s executive director, Marge Cutright, decided to get him running.

Restoration was entrusted to the automotive restoration program at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, whose students replaced the 10 batteries and otherwise prepared the car for operation.

Last Sunday, Tommy was driven under his own power onto the lawn at the Elegance at Hershey concours—and won the National Automotive Heritage Award presented by the Historic Vehicle Association to boot.

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