The following essay appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Mystery Readers Journal.
When I began researching early Twentieth Century Detroit for my historical mystery series, I came across all kinds of information about electric cars. I had some vague notion that electrics existed back in the day, but I really had no idea how significant a part they played in automotive history. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were almost twice as many electrics on the road as there were gasoline cars, but twenty years later, the quieter, cleaner-running vehicles had all but disappeared. The electric car was a superior design, simpler and more reliable. Yet during an age when gasoline-powered vehicles broke down so often they came from the factory with a repair kit, electrics were wiped out.
That smelled like a conspiracy.
After watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, my mind filled with possibilities. As an unpublished author, I needed a conspiracy. At the top of my wish list—a cabal led by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller conspiring to wipe out electrics. Imagine a conference room at the Standard Oil Company, with Ford and Rockefeller and their henchmen. Rockefeller closes the blinds, strolls to the head of the table, and says, “Gentlemen, we have a problem.” Then, though a series of shady business dealings, they work behind the scenes, manipulating the industry like a pair of puppet masters, probably ordering the murders of a few men along the way, until they squeeze the electric car companies (the good guys) out of business. For the book, I’d need a hero—some dashing electric car whiz kid who’s out to save the world, until he’s crushed by the nefarious forces of evil, led by Big Oil.
Can you say “bestseller?”
I started digging in with Henry Ford. It wasn’t until late 1908 that he hit on his first successful vehicle—the Model T. Prior to that, he had little to gain with the death of the electric. Okay, so how about later? Turns out Ford wasn’t against his company producing electrics. He and Thomas Edison, who were close friends, discussed the possibility of Ford Motor Company manufacturing electric cars on numerous occasions, but Ford’s engineers were never able to design one they could build cheaply enough for his taste. Further, while Ford had his share of faults (and a few other people’s shares as well), he was a loyal friend. Edison was building batteries for electrics, and it’s hard to imagine Ford cutting him off at the knees like that. I kept digging, but I wasn’t able to come up with any evidence of Ford’s involvement in the conspiracy.
So on to Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Talk about a guy with a motive—in the early 1900s he controlled more than 90% of the United States’ oil production and only a little lower percentage of the sales of refined oil products. He had a lot to lose if electrics supplanted gasoline-powered cars. So what did he do?
Damn it. I could see that number one spot on the New York Times list going up in smoke. Still, I wanted to know. Was it the pope? That would work. How about Teddy Roosevelt? Not quite as sexy, but still good. Andrew Carnegie? J.P. Morgan?
It was me. And you.
The consumer killed the early electric. Aided by Charles Kettering.
Early electric cars were expensive. The cost of batteries, the technology of which has changed little to this day, was extremely high, putting the price of electrics at a serious premium to gasoline-powered cars. The good news was that automobile owners were rich, because most gasoline cars cost about two year’s wages for the average worker, and most electrics were 50% higher than that. The folks who bought these things were the upper-class, and they could afford any car they wanted. So, if the manufacturers of electrics stuck to the high end, they would have been okay, right?
There were other problems, such as charging. First of all, you had to be somewhere that had an electric grid, not a given in the early Twentieth Century. Next, you had to leave your car all night to charge it. No quick stop at the gas station and off you go!
Range complicated the problem. Most of the early electrics were rated at around fifty miles per charge. That was enough for most uses, but not all, and very few people owned more than one car. By the 1910s, the range of electrics had doubled to 100 miles or more per charge, but still; after 100 miles—if you dared try to take it that far—you were stuck for eight hours or so while your batteries charged. And again, that’s assuming you were somewhere that had electricity.
So, electric cars were expensive, took a long time to charge, and had limited range. Sound familiar?
But they had one thing going for them—women dug electrics. Why? Because of the reasons you might think: they were quiet and didn’t spew noxious fumes. There was a bigger reason, though. They could be started with the flip of a switch. To start a gasoline-powered car, you had to bend down in front of it, grab hold of the crank, and give it a spin. Talk about unladylike. Woman drivers at this point in history were already progressive, really on the cusp of impropriety. To perform a task such as starting a gas car was unthinkable.
The electric car manufacturers focused on their primary demographic—rich women. By doing so, they made electrics de facto women’s cars. It’s not like the men of the early Twentieth Century cornered the market on machismo—men have always wanted to be “manly,” but this was the period in which Teddy Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” was the model. Men were men, and by George, they weren’t going to be driving a woman’s automobile.
Then, in 1911, Charles Kettering went and designed a self-starter for gasoline cars that allowed drivers to start them by flipping a switch. That was the beginning of the end. Women began choosing their automobiles for reasons other than how they started, and a much wider array of gasoline-powered vehicles offered many tempting choices. By the time World War One wrapped up, electrics were all but gone from the American landscape. Only a few electric car manufacturers survived into the Twenties, and only one that I’ve found (Detroit Electric) made it past the Great Depression, and they scraped along by the skin of their collective teeth until 1939, when they finally gave up.
Conspiracy? Unfortunately, no.… Sigh. Bye bye NYT #1.
It wasn’t Ford or Rockefeller or Roosevelt or Carnegie or Morgan. Or even Kettering.
As the great philosopher Pogo so famously said, “We have met the enemy … and he is us.”
Award-winning author D.E. Johnson has published four novels in his Historical Detroit mystery series: The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown, and Detroit Shuffle. His interest in the automobile industry is genetic—his grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors. Johnson is currently working on a crime novel set in early 1900s Chicago that has absolutely nothing to do with the auto industry.
Killed in the press
The Detroit Electric Machining Room circa 1910
I had no idea how often something like the scene at the beginning of The Detroit Electric Scheme happened in real life. (Not the murder part, just the press "accident" part).
Two men at one talk this winter told me about their experiences, one at a Chrysler plant, the other at a Buick plant. One of the men had to clean out the press after a repairman had been working on the press from the inside and it stamped him. He was completely pulverized. Nothing left but liquids. The other knew a machine operator who had been leaning inside the press and put his hands up on the side of it to lever himself out. His head was still inside when one of his hands hit the switch.
Last night at the Cromaine Public Library, one of the men in attendance said he used to work at Fisher Body, and he told me about the evolution of these press accidents and the attempted solutions by management. He had to clean up after one man was crushed in a press and paid close attention to it from then on.
Initially there was one man at the control (single switch) while four other men would put the metal in the press, align it, and remove it when it had been stamped. When the man at the switch got distracted or hit the button accidentally , any of the four could lose a hand, arm, or head, depending on what they had in the machine at the time.
They went to a two switch system, so the button couldn't be pushed accidentally, but they still had the problem with the distracted operator. Also, machine operators for whom pushing two buttons was too much effort would push in one button and wedge it in place with a toothpick, so he'd just have to push one button to start the press. Additionally, men were losing legs because they would put their leg up to stretch at just the wrong time.
Next came all four men having to stand on certain spots or all hold onto a bar outside the press in order for it to work.
In the meantime, hundreds (thousands?) of men were maimed or killed by these machines. Think of the outcry today if something like that was happening (in this country. I'm sure there are similar problems in sweatshops around the world, but we don't hear about those.)
Life was cheap in the U.S. in those days, particularly when the men were easily replaceable and there wouldn't be publicity problems for the company. It was just the cost of doing business. Of course, the families of those men wouldn't feel the same way.
Batteries & Cost
In 1911 you could order a Detroit Electric with Thomas Edison's new nickel-steel batteries. Edison had been promising his new batteries for a decade and unsuccessfully tried to manufacture them numerous times before, but by 1910 he finally had them ready to go. For electric car manufacturers, this was the moment they'd been waiting for. The average mileage on a charge would go from 50 to 100! With the roads being what they were at the time, 100 miles would take you just about anywhere you wanted to go.
In fact, Detroit Electric ran a mileage test in the fall of 1910 with Edison batteries and set a mileage record of 211.3 miles on a single charge. (Chronicled in The Detroit Electric Scheme.) And then Baker Electric one-upped them in December with over 243 miles!
A 1911 Detroit Electric cost between $2,000 and $3,500, depending on the model. The Edison battery added $600 to the cost. Ouch. As a contrast, a Model T roadster cost $600 for the whole car! Of course, it was nothing - at all - like a Detroit Electric. Still, the average cost of a new car in 1911 was $1,130.
Unfortunately, batteries, whether nickel-steel or lead-acid, didn't get significantly cheaper. Gasoline automobile prices kept diving, driven by intense competition and improvements in manufacturing efficiency. The electric car companies never gained that advantage, and their prices stayed very static.
The price gap kept growing, and the self-starter for the gas cars eliminated the greatest advantage the electrics held--easy starting. By the time "The Great War" began, electrics were on the ropes. By 1920 they were all but gone. (Although, believe it or not, Detroit Electric was in business into the 1940's!)
Who Killed the Electric Car (Part 2)
In the early years, electrics had a very significant advantage over gasoline and stem-powered cars - they were easy to start. All you had to do was flip a switch, and, assuming the batteries were charged, the car was ready to go.
With a steam car, you had to stoke up the boiler and wait for the better part of an hour before you could get going. Not exactly convenient. Add to that the possibility of the boiler exploding if you weren't an expert, and it was pretty clear that this method of combustion was not going to be long-lived in automobiles.
Gasoline cars were easier and more convenient to start than that, but you still had to get your spark and throttle controls set just right and then crank the engine started. For all but the most adventurous women of the day, it was unthinkable to engage in such unladylike behavior. For men, it was all part of the adventure of the automobile, but it was still a pain - sometimes literally. People were injured, maimed, and even killed by the crank spinning back on them. In fact, this is what inspired the invention of the first reliable self-starter for a gasoline automobile.
Byron Carter, the founder of the Carter-Car Company, stopped to help a woman whose car had stalled. He didn't check the spark before he tried to start it. The engine backfired, and the crank spun back, breaking his arm and smashing his face and jaw. He died of gangrene a few weeks later.
His friend, Henry Leland, at the time the owner of Cadillac, vowed to develop a self-starter for a gasoline automobile that really worked. Self-starters had been around for a while - they just didn't work well or often. So Leland brought in Charles Kettering, the inventor of the electric cash register and an electricity generator known as the "Delco" (a sign of things to come for Kettering). Kettering introduced his self-starter in early 1911, It was first used in the 1912 Cadillacs to great reviews, and went on to sweep the industry.
The advantage in easy starting that the electric had over the "infernal combustion" vehicle was gone, and with it a significant percentage of the electric business.
Who killed the Electric Car?
Electric cars were more popular at the turn of the 20th Century than gasoline cars, but by 1920 they had almost entirely disappeared. Was this due to a conspiracy between Henry Ford and Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller?
I wish. Sexy conspiracy theories are always more exciting than the truth. I find it interesting that most of the issues that dogged electrics a hundred years ago are the same problems they have today. Hoping that someone else finds it interesting as well, I will post a series of entries on the reason the electric car died. First . . .
The American Man and the Art of Touring
The automobile opened up this country for exploration. Previously, if a person wanted to travel they would either hook up the horse and wagon or take a train. They could direct the horses wherever they wanted and weren't limited by a schedule, but horses couldn't cover a lot of ground in a day. A train traveled faster and further, but they were limited by the tracks and the train's schedule.
With an automobile a traveler could cover a lot of ground and go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. And the automobile was so doggone manly. With his scarf trailing behind him in the breeze, his goggles fixed firmly in place, and the woman he was courting on the seat next to him, a man could travel the countryside. If he was lucky, he could stop in a secluded area for a picnic and perhaps a bit of romance.
Cars were an accessory to a "manly man." The cooler the car, the cooler the man (or so the men thought. Sound familiar?) Cars were also expensive. Few people could afford one until the 1920's. In the early part of the 20th century, owning a car signaled to all that you were wealthy.
Touring became the rage, the pastime for the rich. It was the primary reason most men bought cars. This was a problem for the electric.
Steam-powered automobiles ran on water, so the boiler could be filled practically anywhere. Gasoline-powered cars could be driven anywhere gas could be delivered, which, as the internal combustion engine grew in popularity for things like tractors, was virtually anywhere.
Charging an electric required electricity--something not readily available in the country. Well into the 20th century, most rural areas didn't have electrical service. Those that did most often didn't have a facility designed to charge an electric car. If a man took his electric out for a tour, he might not get back. In the early 1900's electrics got an average of about fifty miles on a charge. Who wanted to take the chance of getting stranded?
So if electrics were the third choice for touring, who bought them? Mostly city folk, who drove only in the city. There were a few dandies who didn't mind being seen behind the wheel of an electric car, but they were purchased most often to be driven by women. And the vast majority of women didn't--and wouldn't--drive. The second most common customers were city doctors--house calls, you know. Starting quickly and easily was important in a life or death situation. Electric delivery trucks were also a fairly common purchase during this time, for things like coal, ice, and milk--products that were delivered within a relatively small geographic area.
The purchase of purely electric cars was limited to a tiny part of the population: people who could afford to buy a car just for city driving. (And remember, this was before the rise of the middle class.) Given that few men bought cars to drive around a city, this was strike one against the electric.
Next time--Battery Technology and Cost