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What’s old is new again: Detroit Electric rises from the ashes

This 1910 Detroit Electric Model D Type R Brougham sold for $41,800 (U.S.) at a recent auction.


In the 20th century's first decade, electric cars, such as the 1910 Detroit Electric, quietly, efficiently and briefly managed to capture a major portion of the emerging mobility market in North America.

But, like the cars themselves, enthusiasm for electrics proved to have a limited range, peaking in 1912, draining away through the teen-years like an undercharged battery and down to just a trickle by the 1920s. What might have been the last of the Detroit Electrics – with 13,000 built, it was the leader in the electric field – was produced in 1939.

Almost three quarters of a century later, however, the Detroit Electric name has again excited the ammeter monitoring the Motor City's essentially flat, economic battery. Indicating a tentative flicker of activity, a tiny potential spark of new life has been generated by a "Recharged, Rebooted and Reborn" version of the company.

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Earlier this year, the born-again Detroit Electric company, established in 2008 by Albert Lam, former CEO of Lotus Engineer Group, inked a joint venture agreement with China's Geely (new owner of Volvo) to develop vehicles for the market there. It announced plans to produce the SP:01, a two-seater the company said would be "the fastest pure-electric sports car in the world" with a top speed of 250 km/h. Unfortunately, those plans were recently short-circuited and the company is reportedly planning to produce the car in Holland, although still vowing future production will be in Detroit.

The original Detroit Electrics arrived while interest in electrics was still ramping up, and the latest iteration of the company is obviously hoping to leverage the recent surge in electrical potential. Although 100 years later, the challenges faced by both the original and new company remain remarkably similar: driving range, battery technology, recharging and finding a market that will sustain long-term profits.

The appeal of electrics at the turn of the 20th century was easy to understand. Crude early motoring alternatives, powered by steam or primitive internal combustion engines, required mechanical know-how, a willingness to get grease under your fingernails, manly strength and acceptance of the fact you'd get the odd wrist-breaking rap from a cranky engine's starting handle.

Most women, sensibly, didn't want to put up with any of this, although they were as quick off the mark as their male counterparts to see the advantages of personal transportation.

"Women loved electric cars," TV host and enthusiastic car guy Jay Leno, who includes electrics in his large collection, opined in a Hemmings Daily article. "They were easy to drive, they weren't greasy or smoky – you just twist a key and go. Rich men bought them for their wives, not for themselves."

Henry Ford bought a number of Detroit Electrics – advertised as Society's Town Car – for his wife Clara.

Success for electrics was short-lived, however, as demand for extended range was met by increasingly sophisticated, reliable and ever-cheaper gasoline-fuelled vehicles, such as Ford's Model T, and the arrival in 1912 of the electric starter. A number of sources also speculate the reputation electrics soon acquired as "women's cars" meant they didn't stand much of a chance in a male-dominated market.

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Among the many companies offering battery-powered vehicles in the early days was Anderson Carriage Co., founded to build horse-drawn conveyances in the 1880s. Founder William C. Anderson began delivering Detroit Electric cars in 1907. He produced 125 that year, and 800 a year by 1910, the year the Model D Type R Brougham – which was sold recently at Bonham's Philadelphia auction for $41,800 (U.S.) – was produced.

The Detroit Electrics served up by former carriage maker Anderson were not considered particularly innovative, but used high-quality components, including the three-horsepower, 48-volt DC motor. The driver could select from five forward speeds, ranging up to about 40 km/h, through an electric "controller." Underneath, were solid axles and leaf springs, steering was by a left-side-mounted folding tiller. Drum brakes on the rear wheels provided adequate stopping power.

Range was advertised as 80 miles (128 kilometres), with twin lead-acid batteries, but one Detroit Electric set a record of 211 miles with the $600 optional nickel-steel-caustic-potash power pack developed by Thomas Alva Edison, a close pal of Henry Ford's, and an early champion of electric vehicles.

Tall, formal, well-built and nicely finished bodies – "dignified, with both character and correct taste" – were fitted out with embossed leather interiors and innovations, such as what may have been the first curved glass used in a production automobile, to suit a carriage-class clientele of elegant, big-hatted, urban belles. City doctors, in a time when 24/7 house calls were the norm, were another target market.

The Model D Brougham sold by Bonham's last week is one of the earliest surviving Detroit Electrics, and was originally shipped to the California Electric Garage in Pasadena, Calif. It then spent many decades in a carriage museum from which it emerged this year in unrestored condition.

What Detroit Electric will get up to with Geely in building all-electric conveyances remains to be seen, but the fast and flashy SP:01 sports car should at least put to rest the company's century-old reputation for producing "chick cars."

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Back in 1910

Detroit’s population is 465,766.

Halley’s Comet is visible from Earth. It won’t be seen again until 1986.

French inventor Georges Claude lights up the Paris Auto Show with the first practical neon lights.

Famous folk born in 1910 included: British actors David Niven and Jack Hawkins, U.S. actor Robert Cummings, Nobel laureate Sister Teresa and underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

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