1912 Detroit Electric with a Tesla

Clean and quiet: the 100-year old advantages of an electric vehicle

It’s a pleasant sunny day, and the Detroit Electric glides out of her residence with much the same grace and poise she has had for more than a century. She is tall, aloof, clad in regal black—a dowager duchess from the age of steam and kerosene. She is our electric past.

These days, buying an electric vehicle can be both a practical and a premium choice. The Nissan Leaf is about as difficult to own as a toaster; it doesn’t have a surfeit of range, but is easy to maintain and smooth to drive. The Tesla Model S and Model X provide blistering acceleration in their upper trim levels, out-performing many supercars. There’s a huge premium charged for this performance, but so far demand has been steady. People like the idea of electric power, and non-traditional definitions of luxury that go with it–such as never going to the gas station.

The thing is, the luxury EV isn’t a new idea at all. This 1912 Detroit Electric high-roof is just one example of the well-heeled electric aristocrat. It was delivered to the wife of a wealthy veterinarian at a cost $3,200 (more than $75,000 today)—six times the price of a contemporary Model T. Built by in Michigan by the Anderson Electric company, the Detroit Edison’s nickel-steel batteries gave it a range of around 80 miles, more than enough for urban use.

At the dawn of the automobile, the market was a crowded, riotous scene. Our current era is overrun with sameness, marching towards a future where most cars on the road are the ubiquitous crossovers. But back then the nascent motoring class had a surfeit of choice. You could buy a Stanley Steamer, or a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce, or move downmarket with a chattery little Model T.

1912 Detroit Electric
behind the wheel of the 1912 Detroit Electric

At the time, two giants of the electric world were having a massive battle over what sort of current to use. On one side, the well-established and dogged Thomas Edison clung to his DC; on the other side, the eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla insisted (correctly, as it turns out) that AC was the way forward. It was a time when electricity was regarded with a sort of reverent awe, used as everything from medical treatment to a way to try to contact the aliens that must surely be living on Mars.

And as for the automotive world, the electric car was already a well-established option. The first experimental electric runabouts pre-date Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen by decades, and as the turn of the century approached, EVs were in regular use as buses and mail delivery vehicles. Further, in 1899, inventor Camille Jenatzy set a world speed record in his torpedo-shaped La Jamais Contente. The electric-powered record car hit just under 66 mph, becoming the first car to break the 100-km/h (62-mph) barrier. At the same time, Ferdinand Porsche was working on all-wheel-drive and hybrid machines, many of which would go on to set further records.

Starting a gasoline-powered car in the early part of the 20th century was a bit of a kerfuffle. There’s a very good reason people employed chauffeurs, and it wasn’t just about not wishing to drive in traffic. If you’ve ever had the chance to drive or ride in a Model T, you’ll know how tricky its three-pedal and steering-wheel-mounted controls can be. Practice and coordination help, but most Model Ts are anything but smooth.

1912 Detroit Electric high-roof
Brendan McAleer

The Detroit Electric represented an alternative to both chauffeurs and the noisy gasoline-powered car. This high-roofed model was designed specifically for the tall hats a well-heeled female might wear, and was intended to provide freedom from male companionship. The owner simply stepped aboard, lowered the tiller steer, and pressed on the accelerator. Both the strength required and added danger of a crank start were non-issues on the Detroit Electric.

Top speed on most early electric cars is quite limited—only 20 mph or so. However, for navigating the crowded city streets of the day, the Detroit would have been completely adequate. This particular example remained in use in the mild climate of Victoria, B.C., Canada, right up until the early 1960s. It then entered a period of storage, but was brought back to life by the local Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, who continue to use it as a teaching tool.The list of people who owned vintage electrics like this Detroit stretches from Thomas Edison to the Rockefeller family. The Milburn Electric, a similarly sized and powered machine, was even used by the Secret Service during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson often puttered around the grounds of the White House in his 1918 Milburn.

Up to now, most surviving vintage electrics have been preserved by those who save the cars out of a love for their technology and style. However, the oft-overlooked machines occasionally find their way to the collector car market, with high-end examples or those with unusual provenance doing particularly well—like the 1920 Detroit Electric Model 82 Brougham that sold for $66,000 last summer and the rare 1923 Milburn Electric Model 27L that brought $165,000 in 2015.

1912 Detroit Electric wheel detail
1912 Detroit Electric detail

On one hand, rising values place these quirky machines outside the range of many casual vintage car enthusiasts. On the other hand, the more they’re worth, the more likely they are to be preserved. As we tuck our Detroit Electric back amongst the turbines of her hydroelectric home, perhaps she’s just finally getting the respect she deserves.