Everything Old is New Again: Even Electric Cars

As the automobile companies continue to wrestle with ways to stay in business and build more relevant, energy-efficient cars, new designs for electric cars as well as an electric hybrid are on the drawing table. Ironically, electric cars are not new; they were first used 100 years ago, the preferred vehicle for both women and doctors.

By the early 20th century, cars with an electric motor were a logical outgrowth of the recently designed electric motors for locomotives and omnibuses. The Anderson Carriage Company in Detroit got into the car business by making automobile bodies, and in 1907 they decided to put together the whole car including an electric motor, calling their new model the Detroit Electric. This car went on to become the most popular and long-lived electric vehicle to be sold in the United States. (To see photos of these cars, visit http://www.detroitelectric.org/.)

Just as electric cars today, these electric cars were powered by a rechargeable battery. Drivers reportedly could drive 80 miles (130 km) between battery recharging sessions. The top speed was about 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), and this was adequate for city driving. The biggest issue with electric cars was price. The Detroit Electric sold for a base price of $2650, and as of 1911, a longer-lasting Edison nickel-iron battery was available for an additional $600. (In 1912, a Ford Model T touring car cost a mere $690.)

The higher-priced car offered advantages, however. Some electric cars featured closed cabs for the riders, which must have made them much more comfortable, but the real advantages were convenience and reliability. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the only way to start a gasoline-fueled engine was via a hand crank. Cranking a car was hard work and could be dangerous. The crank sometimes sprang back unexpectedly (broken wrists occurred), and if the driver planned to start his own car, he had to crank it and then leap into it before the engine stalled.

Those who could afford them drove electric cars. Doctors (remember reading about doctors who made house calls?) needed cars that were easy to start and reliable, and the wives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. all owned Detroit Electrics. A recent article by Christopher Gray in The New York Times (6/14/09) about mansions and their private garages in Manhattan at the turn of the century notes that Andrew Carnegie, who built his mansion at 91st and Fifth Avenue in 1902 (now the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum) had a three-story Georgian-style “automobile house” next door with space for five electric cars, with three charging panels.

So why didn’t electric cars catch on? According to Harold Evans in his book, They Made America, the success of the gas-powered automobile came about because Henry Ford, who created the first mass-produced automobile that could be priced so that it could be sold to more people, had received a push from none other than inventor Thomas Edison. In 1896 Ford was introduced to Edison as a fellow who had made a gasoline-powered car. Edison was said to have told Ford to keep at what he was working on–that electric cars were doomed because they had to remain near power stations. Edison noted that a gas car that carried its own power plant (a gasoline engine) offered more promise.

Detroit Electric cars continued to be built until 1939 but sales took two big plunges… one in the 1920s, as gas-powered cars caught on, and another in 1929 when the stock market crashed. As for electric starters that eventually replaced hand-cranking, these weren’t added to most cars until the 1920s, though the first car to have an electric starter was built in 1912; it was a Cadillac.

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