(This post is yet another from my endless list of Topics About Which I Knew Nothing. And I grew up in Detroit – but didn’t know about this.)
Let’s say it’s America 100 years ago – 1921.
The Great War ended three years ago, and the U.S. is prosperous.
Warren Harding is president, the New York Yankees are going to their first world series, and people are dancing to the popular tune, Ain’t We Got Fun?
Women had achieved the right to vote a year earlier, corsets were out, and stylish, well-to-do ladies were wearing ensembles like these:
And if a woman was quite well-to-do, she may have buzzed around town in this quite stylish vehicle:
Talk about stylish!
Check out those side windows – that’s curved glass, the first curved glass in a production automobile.
And the interior was outfitted like an Edwardian sitting room, complete with plush carpet, drapes, flower vases, and a comfortably padded bench seat along the back wall:
That’s seating for the driver and one companion, while a second companion could relax in a cushy bucket seat up front that swiveled toward the back seat for socializing:
And best of all, there was none of that dreadful hand-cranking to start the engine, like those old Ford cars:
You could break an arm doing that!
In your sweet, stylish automobile you just turned the key, and you and your friends were on your way to a soirée or afternoon cocktails (never mind Prohibition), surrounded by elegant comfort and privacy.
Your Detroit Electric car.
The Detroit Electric was produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company, which built 13,000 electric cars from 1907 to 1939. In addition to being easy to start, the cars were advertised as reliably getting 80 miles between battery recharging, and their top speed was 20-25mph – fine for buzzing around town.
They were quieter, smoother, and easier to drive, with tiller steering, a pair of pedals (brake and release) and a simple lever to increase the speed or slow the car. And they required less maintenance than gasoline-powered cars, plus no stopping at gasoline stations for our 1921 ladies:
Yes, there was a downside – electric cars then, like now, were more expensive.
By 1921, Henry Ford had whittled the base price of his car down to $415 ($5,714 adjusted for inflation), but the Detroit Electric’s base price was $2,985 ($46,203). And when Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, it eliminated the need for the hand crank and broadened the appeal of gasoline-powered vehicles.
In the 1910s, the Detroit Electric Car Company was producing 1,000-2,000 cars a year. Production slowed in the 1920s, and after the stock market crash in 1929 the company filed for bankruptcy. They continued to build special-order cars, until the last Detroit Electric was shipped in 1939.
There are still a few Detroit Electric cars around today, mostly in museums, including these:
And this one, a 1914 Detroit Electric driven by Clara Ford, who apparently didn’t care to drive the Model T made by her husband Henry!
My research also led me to the website of the Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation in Kingman, AZ where I read this:
At the beginning of the 20th century the U.S. had almost twice as many electric cars registered as gasoline ones. There were around 300 manufacturers of electrics. By the beginning of World War II, they were almost all gone.
And I saw pictures of the restoration of a 1930 Detroit Electric, including red drapes in the windows to match its luxurious interior:
Even as Detroit Electric cars are museum pieces now, perhaps someday we – or our descendants – will visit museums to see other old, no-longer-produced cars.
Someday – when those old gasoline-powered cars have been completely replaced by clean, quiet, lower-maintenance, environment-friendly, affordable electrics: