Here in New York City, politicians, activists, and celebrities are renewing a hundred-year-old battle between automobiles and horse-drawn carriages. This time, however, the war isn’t over the future of personal transportation: it’s about the 68 horse-drawn carriages that offer tourists meandering rides around Central Park.
The rides are a New York mainstay, but opponents argue that the long days on busy city streets are dangerous and inhumane. To fight this battle, activists are turning to the same weapon that was used a hundred years ago: an electric, brass-era horseless carriage. And after a year of work, the vehicle has been unveiled for the first time at the New York International Auto Show on Manhattan’s west side — just blocks from the stables that the Central Park horses call home.
At first glance, the so-called “Horseless eCarriage” looks like it might belong in a kitschy Disneyland ride. But step up close, and it’s clear that this is no tacky, turn-of-the-century facade on a modern vehicle. “It’s a labor of love,” says Jason Wenig, the passionate, straight-talking Brooklyn native behind the vehicle. His Florida-based classic car restoration shop, The Creative Workshop, was commissioned to build the vehicle by NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets), an animal rights group that’s leading the charge against the Central Park horse-carriage industry.
Wenig’s words don’t come across as a cliche. Polished brass fittings are sprinkled across the car. The bench seats have an old-school, diamond-tufted pattern — though Wenig tells me with a hearty laugh that the upholstery is made of vinyl, not leather. There’s even a cute (if obnoxious) "ahooga" horn, and the dashboard’s made of wood.
"I took my favorite things from that era and combined them into the ultimate homage."
Upon an even closer look, other details stand out, like the electric charging connector, which is located just below the radiator — right where you’d expect to find the hand crank. Perhaps most impressive is the custom-made, period-authentic chassis and traditional leaf-spring suspension that really makes it look like a brass-era car.
The horseless carriage might look like cars from the period, but it’s not a replica — it’s a custom-made creation designed by Wenig. "I took my favorite things from that era and combined them into the ultimate homage," he tells me in a telephone interview. He borrowed bits and pieces from period touring cars made by Pierce-Arrow, Rolls Royce, and Maxwell.
Once he drew up his dream car, the struggle was to turn it into a reality. That meant passing federal regulations. To make it, Wenig had to add modern touches not found on vehicles from 1909, like a windshield, electric headlamps, and seat belts.
NYCLASS wanted an electric vehicle from a start, so he brought in an EV expert from Canada who could deliver a "rock-solid, basic, straight-forward, and highly-technologically advanced" drivetrain. The result is an electric vehicle with 100 miles of range that can last the 16-hour shifts that carriage drivers work. But this is no Tesla. Wenig is the first to admit that "they’re in a different world." The Horseless eCarriage can go a maximum of 30 miles per hour, and GPS sensors automatically lock it down to 5 miles per hour in Central Park. "Basically, it’s a really, really sexy, sophisticated golf cart."
"Basically, it’s a really, really sexy, sophisticated golf cart."
But that golf cart is rolling into what’s become a heated politicized battle ever since New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on the campaign trail that he’d ban horse carriages during his first week in office. NYCLASS contributed over $1.3 million to that campaign, and it put up the $450,000 for the electric carriage revealed today.
Allie Feldman, a representative for the group, says that they decided to go for the vehicle after attempts to outright ban the horse-carriage industry failed because of concerns about the 150 drivers employed by the rides. So they’re taking a different approach: "We see this as upgrading the industry … not banning the industry," Feldman tells The Verge. If a horse ban can pass through the City Council, NYCLASS plans to open a shop in Brooklyn or Queens to construct more of the electric carriages. They’d sell for roughly $150,000 to $200,000.
De Blasio supports that plan, but as the horse ban blossomed into a national news story, the mayor figured out that passing such a law might not be so easy. He recently announced that while the ban’s been delayed, "we expect action on it this year." In the meantime, celebrities have hopped on board to assist in the fight, with Alec Baldwin, Miley Cyrus, and more throwing their weight behind the ban. Others, like Liam Neeson, are working to build support for the horse-carriage industry. He’s discussed the horse ban on multiple late-night talk shows, and he wrote an op-ed on the matter that was published this week in The New York Times.
Opponents of the ban point out that only four horses have died in the past 30 years, and experts say that inspections ensure proper conditions for the animals. And they suspect that the horse ban is motivated not by animals’ rights, but the business that leads to so many decisions in New York City: real estate. Two of the horse stables lie on valuable plots on Manhattan’s far west side — land that’s prime for redevelopment. NYCLASS representatives have denied such claims.
Whatever the result of the battle, it’s given birth to an impressive machine. The electric car might not have quite the charm of a horse and buggy, but it’s sure to get any car fanatic in a tizzy.