In recent years, rising gas prices and environmental concerns have encouraged renewed interest in electric cars. These days, one occasionally sees them on the road, mostly notably the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Roadster. Although they appear to be strikingly new, the concept of the electric car is actually as old as that of the internal combustion engine powered car. For a brief time during the early twentieth century, they competed directly with their internal combustion engine counterparts. In the United States, there was one electric car in particular that enjoyed a fair amount of success for a short time: the Detroit Electric.
The Detroit Electric, which enjoyed a brief period of popularity during the late 1900s and mid-1910s, was manufactured by Anderson Carriage Company of Detroit, Michigan (later renamed Anderson Electric Car Company in 1911, then Detroit Electric Car Company in 1919). Designed by George M. Bacon, the first Detroit Electric rolled out of the factory in 1907. These cars soon found favor with certain parts of the motoring public and yearly production correspondingly grew, increasing from 125 in 1907 to a peak of 4,669 units in 1914.
Specifically designed as a city car, the Detroit Electric is a truly fascinating piece of automotive technology. The cars were powered by electric motors supplied by Elwell-Parker Company of Cleveland, Ohio (which became part of Anderson Carriage Company in 1909). Energy for the electric motor was initially provided by lead-acid batteries, which could be recharged either at a rectifier kept in one’s garage (the more common charging method) or at a charging station (if one could be found). Most Detroit Electrics were equipped with lever control, employing a side lever for steering and a horizontal lever for the throttle. Throughout its production life, the car’s design was continuously improved. Direct shaft drive was introduced in 1911 and more powerful Edison nickel-iron batteries were offered as an option that same year.
In terms of performance, the Detroit Electric had characteristics that were considered acceptable for city driving in its day. It had a top speed of approximately 20 miles per hour, but was blessed with quick acceleration. In terms of mileage, its batteries were advertised as having a reliable range of 80 miles. Because they employed electric propulsion, Detroit Electrics were easier to start and operate than internal combustion engine cars (most of which were started by hand cranks at the time). They were also renowned for their dependability, and their clean and quiet operation. It was these performance characteristics that led to most Detroit Electrics being purchased by affluent women and physicians living in urban areas. Women liked to use them to go shopping and for short trips to social engagements. Doctors frequently used to them to go on house calls.
After enjoying a brief period of popularity, sales of the Detroit Electric declined after 1916, dropping from 3,000 units that year to a mere handful during the 1930s. This was mainly brought on by a combination of advances in internal combustion technology (such as the invention of the electric starter) and problems that bother electric cars to this day (limited battery range and lack of charging infrastructure). The last Detroit Electrics were manufactured around 1938-1939. It is estimated that approximately 35,000-37,000 of these cars were built.
Detroit Electric: http://www.detroitelectric.org/
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 430
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 444-449.
The Detroit Electric, Detroit Electric: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1916-1931, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
The Detroit Electric, Society’s Town Car, 1914, Detroit Electric: Trade Catalogs: Various Models, 1912-1915, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.