1913 Detroit Electric
1913 Detroit Electric. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

At the turn of the century when the car was in its infancy, three power sources were vying for supremacy: electricity, steam and gasoline. Each had its advantages and disadvantages.

Electric cars were clean, quiet and easy to drive, but had a limited driving range, making them essentially urban transportation. Steam was quiet and powerful, but required a skilled operator and could be slow to generate steam. Gasoline powered cars were relatively easy to operate, and had a good range on a tank of fuel, but were noisy, hard to start and cantankerous.

The steam engine, having been around for about 150 years should have had the advantage, but its disadvantages were pretty formidable. The electric car also had its drawbacks, but would continue for a surprisingly long period.

When speed records first started to be kept, electrics held the world’s land speed record from December 18, 1898 to April 13, 1902. The highest speed attained by an electric was 105.9 km/h (65.79 mph) by Belgian Camille Janetzy on April 29, 1899, the first car to exceed 96 km/h (60 mph). This record lasted three years, before being broken by a Serpollet steamer driven by Frenchman Leon Serpollet at 120.8 km/h (75.06 mph) in April 13, 1902.

A few months later Serpollet’s record fell to W.K. Vanderbilt, Jr., in a gasoline powered French Mors at 122.5 km/h (76.08 mph). All records from then on would be set by gasoline cars until the advent of the “rocket” cars.

The invention of the electric starter in 1912 eliminated one of the gasoline engine’s biggest disadvantages, and gasoline cars surged ahead. But in spite of disadvantages, electrics continued to hold a small share of the market until the Second World War. The longest running of these was the Detroit Electric. It was initially manufactured by the Anderson Carriage Co., a name that would change several times.

William C. Anderson was born in Milton, Ontario, in 1853, and moved to Michigan as a boy. He founded the Anderson Carriage Co. in Port Huron in 1884, relocated it to Detroit in 1895, and in 1907 entered the automobile field. He chose electric power, and built 125 of his chain-drive, tiller-steered runabouts (open cars) that year.

Anderson offered a closed car in 1908, one of the first to do so. Called the Inside-Drive Coupe, it provided a cosy ride at a time when most gasoline cars were exposing their passengers to the sting of the elements.

Detroit Electrics established a reputation as well built, easy-to-drive cars. Production reached 400 in 1908, 650 in 1909, and 1,500 in 1910. While small compared with Ford’s 32,000 1910 gasoline car production, and Buick’s 20,000, it was still respectable for a young company.

In 1911 the company became the Anderson Electric Car Co., and Detroits were changed from chain to a shaft driven by the centrally located electric motor. It was powered by banks of batteries under the “hood” and in the “trunk.”

The beautifully constructed wood-frame bodies were covered with sheet aluminum, and inside they were luxuriously finished in rich brocade fabrics.

Although the Detroit offered many driving arrangements through the years, the most common had the driver seated on the left side of the car. Control was through a long, horizontal steering tiller extending from the driver’s left side, with a shorter one below it for speed control. The right hand steered, and the left controlled speed. A foot pedal engaged the rear wheel brakes, while pulling the speed lever back provided additional braking by a drum ahead of the motor.

In a world now dominated by gasoline cars, Anderson continued to thrive. It offered a wide variety of models, including taxis and limousines, and by 1914 annual production was approximately 2,000. With a boost from the First World War’s gasoline shortage, production reached 3,000 by 1916.

In 1919, Anderson became the Detroit Electric Car Co. When car sales flagged badly in the 1920s, Detroit began concentrating on commercial vehicles. The 1930s were not kind to Detroit Electric, although it would last until the end of the decade, undergoing another name change to the Detroit Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Co. In its later years it built only to order, and with bodies supplied by others such as Willys-Overland.

Detroit Electrics are rarely seen these days, but a beautiful 1913 Model 97 is owned by Richard and Joanne Smith of Columbus, Georgia. While I was visiting Columbus, Richard was kind enough to take me for a spin in it. As the Detroit trundles almost silently along, it’s easy to understand why the charm of its smooth, quiet ride was so attractive in an era of coarse, noisy gasoline cars.

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