(Reprinted from Michigan History Magazine)
Are electric cars in Detroit a new concept? Not hardly. The first such vehicles debuted on the streets of the Motor City more than 100 years ago. With names like Century, Detroit Electric, Flanders, Grinnell, and Hupp-Yeats, these no-crank automobiles (and some trucks) appealed to doctors and delivery men because of their quick and easy startups. Women were another strong customer category; the absence of the crank as well as a lack of noise and noxious fumes were viewed as very appealing features to the distaff side.
Detroit dominated the gasoline-powered automobile business in the early 1900s, but many people don’t know about the city’s simultaneous foray into electrics, which included the most successful electric car company in U.S. history. The manufacturers of electrics had a heady 20 years or so during which their possibilities looked endless. But a number of factors combined to seal their fate, and they had all but disappeared from the Michigan landscape by the end of World War I.
The first electric car was built in Scotland in 1837, although it wasn’t until 1896 that the first American-made production electrics were offered by the Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston, Massachusetts and the American Electric Vehicle Company (later Waverly Electric) of Chicago, Illinois. By the turn of the century, 38 percent of all the automobiles on American roads were electrics. (Forty percent were steam-powered and the remaining 22 percent used gasoline.) The first car to go more than a mile a minute was an electric, as were the winners of the first track race and the first hill-climbing contest.
In 1900, there were 75 electric car companies in the U.S. (although many folded before producing anything more than a prototype). By the end of the decade, that number had been whittled down to 46, almost all of them different from the ones that existed 10 years earlier. Every month, more came in and just as quickly went out.
By 1910, electric cars were marketed toward three distinct customers: rich women, city doctors, and urban delivery companies. For doctors and delivery companies, the benefit was obvious. They made frequent stops throughout their day, and using the manual “crank” starter on a gasoline-powered vehicle was inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. (Some people were even killed when the engine kicked back and the crank spun unexpectedly.) Further, electrics had plenty of range—50 to 100 miles per charge, depending on the model—to cover the necessary distances without worry.
Women were also concerned about the starter. The process of bending down, grabbing hold of the crank, and giving it a spin was considered unladylike. Women who drove were already at the edge of what might be considered socially acceptable, and that additional bit of manual labor was too much for many modern women to stomach.
The price of batteries (of the lead-acid variety, as you would find today) drove the cost of electric cars to exceed the price of comparable gas automobiles by at least 50 percent. But the ease of starting, combined with the lack of noise and noxious fumes, earned a place for the electric in American society.
At least half a dozen electric car companies were formed in Detroit in the early 20th century: Century, Columbian, Detroit Electric, Flanders, Grinnell, and Hupp-Yeats. Columbian was short-lived and produced only a handful of automobiles, but the other manufacturers each had some measure of success. All of these companies advertised a range of up to 100 miles on a charge—more than enough distance in an era of 10-mile-per-hour speed limits and barely passable rural roads.
The primary market for electric cars after 1910 was at the high end, with models priced at $2,500 and up. Given this, some companies thought they saw an opportunity for a less expensive automobile to succeed. One such company was Century Electric, which operated from 1912 to 1915. Century made lighter-weight cars with a long, underslung chassis that was hung below the axles rather than set atop them. This last feature lowered the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it safer to round tight corners at high speeds. Century manufactured open-body roadsters (available at only $1,250 in 1912) as well as enclosed broughams, which looked similar to opera coaches. These days, Century is little more than an asterisk in the history of the electric car.
Flanders Electric debuted in 1912 and was the brainchild of Walter Flanders, Henry Ford’s former production manager and the “F” in the E-M-F automobile company. The Pontiac auto maker was successful in the gasoline-car market with its “Flanders 6,” but saw an opportunity to build electrics as well. It made plans to take over the market, pricing its electrics from $1,775 to $2,500.
The Flanders’ look was notable for the absence of a hood; the company’s brochures even ridiculed electric car companies that chose to add that needless feature. Electric-car motors were placed under the automobile—or, in the case of Flanders’ cars, in the back because they were built low to the ground—so there was no need for a traditional hood, other than for aesthetic reasons.
It’s said that Flanders spent the better part of a million dollars promoting its product line. After producing fewer than 100 electric cars and finding itself in receivership, Flanders entered the history books in 1914.
The Grinnell Electric Car Company was owned by the same family as the Grinnell Brothers Piano Company. Grinnell’s automobiles, manufactured from 1913 to 1914, were reminiscent of the products of industry leaders such as Baker—a prominent Ohio brand—both in design and in customer focus. The company aimed at the high-end market, and primarily built enclosed-body coupes and broughams that ranged from $2,800 to $3,400. Grinnell did little to differentiate itself from its competitors, though, and soon found its cars on the scrap heap.
Hupp-Yeats Electric was one of the more successful electric car companies of the era. The company was founded by Robert Hupp of Hupmobile fame and was in business from 1911 to 1919. Hupp worked for Ford and Oldsmobile prior to founding Hupmobile with his brother, Louis. After disagreements with the company’s financial backers, Robert left the business in 1910 to start the RCH Company, later changed to Hupp-Yeats Electric.
Hupp-Yeats automobiles had stylish sloping hoods, curved roofs, and underslung bodies, and were available as coupes or runabouts. In 1911, they were priced from $1,650 to $2,150 and delivered as much as 125 miles on a charge.
The brand most closely associated with Detroit and electric cars is Detroit Electric, for many more reasons than the name. The firm was originally named the Anderson Carriage Company, and moved from Port Huron to Detroit in 1895 in order to take advantage of the larger market. Anderson’s was a big carriage works, making everything from inexpensive utility wagons to beautiful opera coaches. The company put out its first automobile, the Detroit Electric Model A, in 1907. That year, it sold only 10 cars. In 1908, its first full year of manufacture, the public purchased 184 of its four models—a very respectable number, given the regional nature of business at the time and the still-small luxury automobile market. By 1910, Detroit Electric had become the best-selling brand of electrics in the country, delivering 797 automobiles and a small number of electric trucks. In the early 1910s, Detroit Electrics were priced at $2,000 for an underslung roadster to as much as $4,750 for a limousine with the Edison nickel-steel battery. (It’s worth noting that, during this time period, the average annual income was about $1,000.)
Detroit Electric wasn’t a particularly innovative company. But William C. Anderson and his team, which included chief engineer George Bacon, had great business sense and understood their clientele very well. For rich women, Anderson’s team focused on luxury. Each of the Detroit Electric coupes and broughams came with a flower vase, a case for makeup and business cards with a built-in watch, and in some cases a “gentleman’s smoking kit.” The upholstery choices included “22 ounce superfine Waterloo broadcloth or leather, blue, green, or maroon shades. Imported goatskin, fancy novelty cloth or whipcord on order.” Standard exterior paint colors were blue, Brewster green, or maroon, although they would paint a car any color a customer chose for an additional fee. (In 1909, a Mr. Capewell bought Detroit Electric’s first stretch limousine in an eye-popping shade of canary yellow.)
As new features came onto the market from other manufacturers, the management team at Anderson would evaluate them and incorporate the ones that made sense for their customers. Examples include emulating the direct-shaft drive of Baker electric cars—which ensured a quieter ride—as well as a “duplex drive” feature, which allowed the driver to sit either in the front seat or the back seat. (The Ohio Electric Car Company had introduced this idea a year before Detroit Electric.)
Interestingly, enclosed automobiles of the day were designed much the same as the coaches that preceded them. Typically, a bench seat was fitted against the back wall of the automobile, allowing for two passengers to sit comfortably. In front of them was either another bench seat set against the front wall facing back, or a combination of a small bench seat set into the front left corner of the interior, facing diagonally toward the rear, and a flip-up “jump seat” on the right side, also facing back. The driver would sit in the left rear and have to look around passengers to see the road.
This feature, nonsensical as it may seem, was the way horse-drawn coaches were designed, and it was what the luxury market expected. But as the streets became more crowded, accidents occurred on a more frequent basis. This forced municipalities to enact ordinances banning the use of rear-drive automobiles. The “Detroit Duplex Drive” feature allowed for the traditional layout with rear drive, but the left front seat also could be turned to the front to allow the driver to navigate from there. Detroit Electrics, like most enclosed cars of the day, used steering “tillers,” rather than steering wheels. The tiller could be placed against the side of the interior when not in use and was swung up by the driver when he or she was ready to go.
Detroit Electric purchasers included Thomas Edison, Pierre DuPont, David Gamble, C.W. Post, Mrs. J.D. Rockefeller Jr., Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Anna Kresge, Charles Steinmetz, Stanford White, and the Steinway family. Surprisingly, they were joined by the owners of several gasoline-automobile companies of the day, including Henry Ford—who bought two for his wife and one for his son—and the men who oversaw Packard, Stutz, Cadillac, E-M-F, Studebaker, and General Motors.
It should be noted that the Ford Motor Company took a hard look at electrics, going as far as developing a number of designs in 1914. During this period, Henry Ford’s friend, Thomas Edison, had experienced some serious financial problems, and Ford thought he would help him by building cars that used the inventor’s batteries. Unfortunately, Ford’s designers were unable to create a car that fit within their boss’ pricing parameters—namely, they couldn’t build one nearly cheaply enough.
The cost of electric cars, even at the low end, wasn’t the only thing holding most people back from making a purchase. Range was a concern, particularly as most rural areas were not yet wired for electricity. It was easy to transport gasoline out into the country, less so electricity, so drivers of electrics—for the most part—had to stay close to home. Compounding the problem, the batteries needed half a day to charge, so there was no short stop to “refuel” before getting on the road again.
The biggest problem, however, was the electric car’s identification with women. In the early 1900s, “manliness” wasn’t something most men would compromise, so the idea of driving a “woman’s car” was unthinkable. The electric car manufacturers tried to entice men with low-slung, racy-looking roadsters, but were unsuccessful at breaking out of the stereotype.
Ultimately, the self-starter developed by Charles Kettering in 1911 spelled the end of the early electric. Kettering’s starter allowed drivers of gasoline automobiles to start their cars without a crank, which made them acceptable to most female drivers.
With all of these factors working against the electrics, the market for such cars continued to shrink until the late 1910s, by which time most manufacturers had gone under.
Detroit Electric, however, remained in business until 1939, but not without some effort. At its high point, the company manufactured almost 2,000 vehicles a year. Through the 1920s, its annual output dropped to the low hundreds. Then, the stock market crash of 1929 put it into bankruptcy. Its assets were purchased and the new company struggled along for another decade, manufacturing a handful of cars each year from a combination of new and old parts and staying in business only because of the service work they performed. By 1939, there wasn’t enough of that to keep the company afloat, and it quietly folded. All told, Detroit Electric built nearly 14,000 electric vehicles—the most of any U.S. manufacturer.
In the wake of the demise of the early electric, one can’t help but wonder how Flanders Electric might have reconsidered this statement from their 1912 sales brochure:
“Is there a rule to guide one?
There is. And it is a very simple one.
If an innovation is logical it will survive. It will become permanent. On the other hand—if it is one of those so called improvements devised by [hare]-brained designers simply to create a selling argument or a talking point; if, in short, it is but the hobby of an individual it will become a fad of the moment and as fads do will soon pass into oblivion.”
D.E. Johnson is the award-winning author of the Will Anderson Historical Detroit mystery series. Those books include The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, Detroit Breakdown, and Detroit Shuffle. Thanks to the Motor Cities National Heritage Area for their assistance with this story.
SIDEBAR: A GLOSSARY OF EARLY CAR BODY TERMS
In 1916, the Nomenclature Division of the Society of Automobile Engineers established formal definitions for the many styles of car bodies then on the road. Among the entries listed were:
Roadster— An open-body automobile seating two or three persons. It may have additional seats on the running boards or in a tonneau (rumble seat).
Runabout—Editor’s note: This is often a synonym for “roadster.”
Touring Car—An open car seating four or more with direct entrance to the tonneau.
Coupe—An enclosed automobile seating two or three.
Sedan—A closed car seating four or more all in one compartment.
Limousine—A closed automobile seating three to five inside, with the driver’s seat outside, covered with a roof.
Brougham—A limousine seating three to five with no roof over the driver’s seat.
Source: The New York Times, August 20, 1916.
In my first book, The Detroit Electric Scheme, one of the major subplots is the rise and fall of the early electric car. I chose it very deliberately. Not only was I interested in electrics, it was a current hot button story, and to make it even more enticing, most people are unaware that electrics had a history past the 1990’s.
I try to tell the truth in my books to the extent I can—I hate reading historicals only to learn that the author has made up what reads like genuine history to fit the story. One of the pleasures I get from writing historicals is solving the puzzle—creating fictional puzzle pieces that fit with the historical ones.
Electric cars were popular from before the Twentieth Century until World War I. In fact, in early 1911 there were forty-six different companies building electrics in the United States alone. The most successful of those, Detroit Electric, was the one I chose to write into my story. DE was the most successful of the early electric car manufacturers, reaching number one in sales in the U.S. in 1910 and holding onto that crown while the era of the electrics wound down.
I used the founder and company president, William C. Anderson, as the father for my fictional protagonist, Will Anderson. (Mr. Anderson had two daughters. I figured that a man of that time would have liked a son to take over the company business one day, though now that I think of it, I’m certain he would have liked a son other than Will to do that.) I also used a number of the other actual DE employees in minor roles, though I decided to change one name—the man in charge of DE’s battery manufacturing was named Elwood T. Stretch, a name I thought might slow down a reader. I changed it to Elwood Crane, which I thought created a similar mental image.
Automotive pioneer Edsel Ford (son of Henry) figured prominently in the book, as did John and Horace Dodge, Charles Kettering, and Henry Leland, who also played important roles. I featured Vito Adamo, Detroit’s first crime boss, who continued on in Motor City Shakedown, book two in the series, which took Will into Detroit’s first mob war. In my opinion, a historical novelist is responsible to history to write the essence of the real historical characters in his books to the best of his ability, to tell the “truth” about who they were, while making up conversations and events. I carefully researched these men so I could feel confident that I could give readers a feel for who they really were.
It’s particularly challenging to write historical characters who are well-known and well-documented. An author can’t very well kill off a real person who lived beyond that time, nor, at least in my opinion, should they write those characters doing things they would not have done in real life. I try to blend the person’s actual history with my imagining of what he would have done when thrown into a certain situation in the books.
In telling the story of the early electric, I had to write the time period during which the paradigm changed, when the advantage of the electric disappeared. The Detroit Electric Scheme spans from late 1910 to early 1911. As late as January 1911, the electric looked pretty invincible as the automobile for women, city doctors, and urban delivery companies. When Charles Kettering introduced his electric self-starter for gasoline automobiles, that advantage went up in smoke, though it took a couple of years for the shift to be made apparent.
Even in a three month time span, I could show how the electric had built into a viable product while also including the event that marked its downfall.
I think a historical must be true to history—to the people and events which have been documented. Beyond that, I can do just about anything I like.
That’s enough freedom for me.
by D.E. Johnson
One of my true pleasures in writing historical novels is finding odd facts to share. My book Detroit Breakdown, sent me down a rabbit hole that I didn’t want to leave. My protagonist was stuck in an insane asylum called Eloise Hospital, which, at the time (1912) was experimenting with radium on tubercular patients.
In the early Twentieth Century, scientists discovered that most of the world’s healing hot springs were radioactive. Radon gas (the byproduct of radium deteriorating) was leaching into the water. The springs healed, they were radioactive, ipso facto radiation heals! Soon experiments commenced using radiation to cure health problems. Success was found with both tuberculosis and cancer. Radiation became a sensation on par with electricity in the late Nineteenth Century and the telegraph fifty years earlier.
As I researched the radium treatments at Eloise, I started coming across strange curatives that used radium or uranium. The more I looked, the weirder they got. Consider the following:
The Revigator (1912 – 1930’s)
A uranium-lined water jar that would irradiate water overnight. Their advertising claimed, "The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH ELEMENT—RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water … nature's way to health." The Revigator Company recommended a daily minimum of six large glasses. It was a smash. They opened branches across the United States and sold tens of thousands of water jars to the public. And not only were Revigators irradiating the water, they also released large amounts of other toxic elements, such was arsenic and lead, into the water.
Radithor (1918 – 1932)
The most successful of the radioactive curatives with approximately 400,000 bottles sold, Radithor was made of distilled water with a high concentration of two different radium isotopes. Patients were to drink a bottle after a meal. It was advertised to cure stomach cancer and mental illness, as well as restore “vigor and vitality” (a common theme of radium curatives). A playboy/industrialist named Eben Byers was Radithor’s best-known victim. Byers hurt himself falling from a train berth in 1927, and his doctor recommended Radithor to help him heal. (Not coincidentally, doctors received a 17% kickback from Radithor prescriptions—and the stuff wasn’t cheap at $30 a case.) After the first bottle, Byers felt peppier. He figured that if one bottle made him feel better, three would really work. He set out on a three-bottle-a-day regimen of Radithor. When Byers died a painful death from radiation poisoning in 1932, The Wall Street Journal ran this headline over their article:
The Radium Water Worked Until His Jaw Came Off
Degnen’s Radioactive Eye Applicator (1910’s)—Created by M.L. Degnen, the inventor of the Radio-Active Solar Pad, this product, which looks like a pair of wire-rim glasses with opaque lenses, was available in three strengths, and was advertised to cure headaches and difficulty in focusing, as well as nearsight, farsight, and oldsight. It was recommended that the user close his eyes when using the Applicator.
Radione Tablets (1920’s)—“Strength of Iron—Energy of Radium.” Just what they sound like—Radium tablets. For energy! (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. See Vita Radium suppositories and Radiothor for indications.)
Radium Bread (1920’s)—Baked by the Hippman-Blach Company in what is now the Czech Republic, this bread was made with radium-enriched water.
Tho-Radia Face Cream (1930’s)—Popular in France, Tho-Radia made a full line of beauty products and perfumes containing both thorium chloride and radium. Is your skin dull, listless? Want a little shine? Try Tho-Radia! The man the company claimed invented the product line, Doctor Alfred Curie, was not a member of the famed Curie family, nor was he even likely a real person.
The Scrotal Radioendocrinator (1930’s)—My second favorite product. For a mere $150, you could purchase this gold-plated device, filled with radium, which you would place over your endocrine glands (for men they specified under the scrotum) overnight, for improved endocrine health. The inventor, William Bailey, claimed to have drunk more radioactive water than any living man. He died in 1949 of bladder cancer.
And my hands-down favorite …
Vita Radium Suppositories (1930s)
You don’t need to try too hard to read between the lines of this advertising copy to see that Vita suppositories were allegedly the answer to men’s problems in the bedroom.
“Weak Discouraged Men!
“Now Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality Through the Use of Glands and Radium
". . . properly functioning glands make themselves known in a quick, brisk step, mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word . . . A man must be in a bad way indeed to sit back and be satisfied without the pleasures that are his birthright! . . . Try them and see what good results you get!" (Vita Radium Suppositories are shipped in a plain wrapper for confidentiality.)”
These companies had the cure for what ailed you. Unfortunately, no one had a cure for the cure. It’s easy today, a hundred years later, to laugh at the idea of these curatives. But I guarantee you that people in the 1910’s laughed at the ridiculous products that were used a hundred years earlier. What scares me is that a hundred years from now people will be laughing at the harmful products you and I use today.
Which ones, do you think?
Coming June 21 - the Ann Arbor Book Festival and Writers Conference. There's a great faculty and it should be a lot of fun. Register today!
The Book Festival will be followed by the Moonlight Book Crawl. I'll be reading at the Blue Tractor at 5:00 PM. (See map above.)
I had a wild morning today--something I never thought would happen. Henry Rollins (yes, that Henry Rollins) interviewed me for his History Channel show, 10 Things you don't know about (subject).
This episode is on Edison, Tesla, and the War of the Currents, and it ought to be fascinating (for many more reasons than me being on it). The show will air Fall 2014, exact date TBD. But set your DVRs for all the episodes of this show. It promises to be very interesting!
Scott Hunter froom Asylum Entertainment asked me a few weeks back if I would be interested in appearing on this program, and asked if I knew anyone with an electric car that might have had Edison's nickel-iron batteries. I immediately thought of my pal Jack Beatty, seen here with Henry. Jack has helped me out with some of my events in the past and owns two of the maybe eighty running vintage Detroit Electrics in the U.S.
Jack is a real gentleman and was also tickled at the idea of being on a History Channel program, so no persuasion was needed. They set us up for today at 8:00 AM. It's an almost two-hour drive to Jack's place for me, so I hit the road a little before I woke up. Fortunately, I didn't kill anyone. Henry interviewed me on camera for about an hour, and then they went on to the cars with Jack.
While they were getting ready to film, Henry and I chatted about music and hi fi. He's an audiophile with six stereos in his house, including what has to be one of the best sounding systems anywhere - Wilson speakers, VTL amp and preamp, etc. He is a music fanatic and when he talks about recorded music, he means music on vinyl. No MP3s for this man!
He's coming back to Michigan for a spoken word concert in October and said he'd hook me up on his guest list. Pretty sweet. It's amazing what opportunities come along when you're not paying attention!
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.
I don't normally post reviews in my blog, but this review of Detroit Shuffle was so good I felt like I had to. This is from Book Browse, a subscriber-based book website, which has over 110,000 unique visitors per month. Here's what they said:
"Detroit Shuffle is the very best kind of amateur detective novel - a complex weave of disparate but interrelated threads that advance then double back on each other in ways that would make a Flemish tapestry artist envious.
"Mostly-failed engineer Will Anderson has thwarted the murder of suffragist Elizabeth Hume, and is desperately searching for the man who attempted to kill her. On top of that lies the emotional drama of Will's mental disability. He has blackouts, the result of clinical radium treatments he endured during a previous case. This bit of background information, alone, enticed me to read D. E. Johnson's previous novels, although Detroit Shuffle can certainly be read on its own.
"It's the fall of 1912 in a city Will refers to as "the Paris of the West": Detroit, Michigan - and with good reason. In 1912 Detroit was the epicenter of something that would truly open great, new vistas for the entire population of the Western Hemisphere - the automobile industry. Elizabeth, who is Will's girlfriend and leader of a large and influential suffragist group, is speaking before a crowd when Will spots a man staring at Elizabeth and brandishing a gun. In a blur of panic, Will draws his weapon and attempts to overtake the mysterious gunman, who narrowly escapes Will's grasp before disappearing into the melee. With no corroborating witnesses, Will is taken into custody as a suspected assassin. Of his own girlfriend!
"No one takes the notion of Will's attempt to kill Elizabeth seriously. But more damning is the fact that everyone, Elizabeth included, believes the alleged gunman is a figment of Will's imagination; a residual affect of his previous hospitalization. Their doubt only serves to fortify the young man's resolve. He becomes so determined to prove the gunman's existence that he gets himself fired from his job as an engineer at his father's electric car company for missing too many days' work. In the meantime, Will becomes a target.
"Shady characters are following him, pursuing every shred of evidence he collects, threatening his life. Here is where Johnson stirs the pot, or plot, as it were. Will's evidence begins to coalesce into a suspected conspiracy to fix the upcoming election that will determine the immediate fate of women's suffrage in Michigan. Johnson brings in one potential suspect after another as if each is just waiting in the wings for his or her cue. There is the head of the Michigan Liquor Association, an old high school classmate, private detective agents hired to protect Elizabeth, a former nemesis, plus the corrupt Detroit Police Department. Will barely knows which way to turn. Even his "allies", Detective Riordan and Elizabeth, remain doubtful of his reports, and their well-intentioned actions often only serve to thwart Will's efforts.
"All of this is exquisitely laid out amid sumptuous descriptions of a time and a city so alive and vital as to leap off the page and embrace the reader in its grand exuberance. My only, albeit infinitesimal, complaint is that sometimes Johnson's story arc and wickedly sharp characterizations fall second place under the weight of these meticulously researched descriptions. But as I think about it, that may just be Johnson's secret to plot pacing. Because he is indeed a master at establishing a finely tuned tempo, holding a reader just breathless enough to keep turning page after page.
"Yessir. With all its mystery, thrills, moral, ethical and emotional dilemmas - even Will has self-doubts after suffering a day-and-a-half long blackout - to say nothing of Johnson's literary chiaroscuro, this is about as good as it gets. I say, if you read only only one amateur detective novel this year, make it this one."
I could cite a great number of historical novels here, because there are so many that are outstanding, but I’ll choose only two: Ironweed by William Kennedy and The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle.
Ironweed, which won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, completes Kennedy’s “Albany Cycle”, a marvelous three-book series set in and around Albany, New York. The cycle starts with Legs, the story of 1920s and 1930s gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, as told by attorney Marcus Gorman. The second, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, takes the titular character, a small-time and tarnished gambler during the Great Depression, through a harrowing kidnapping story.
The cycle finishes only a few weeks after the end of book two, with Ironweed, the story of Billy Phelan’s father, Francis, who returns to Albany with Helen, his companion and fellow hobo.
In his youth, Francis was a baseball player with major league potential and ambitions until he lost a finger in a fight. He fled Albany after dropping his thirteen-day-old son, Gerald, killing him. Decades later he returns to Albany to face the ghosts of his past, both literally and figuratively. Here’s how the book starts:
Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death; illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.
Ironweed is a story of guilt and redemption, or such redemption as one can find in this life. It is at once violent and tender, hateful and loving. In my opinion, this is a masterpiece of American literature. My favorite book of all time.
The Road to Wellville is a very different book. I hadn’t read any of Boyle’s previous novels when I came across it lying on a new fiction table at a local bookstore. The cover looked interesting, and the cover flap info showed it was set in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is only about 30 miles from where I live. I read a few random pages and decided I immediately needed to devour it.
The Road to Wellville is one of those rare books that create grief about halfway through – a book so good and so much fun to read that I start to feel sad that I am going to finish it and will no longer be able to look forward to reading it every day. I come across those only every few years, and they all get reread.
Boyle brilliantly skewers the health industry of the early Twentieth Century with the story of Will Lightbody, who is dragged to the Battle Creek “San” (sanitarium) by his grieving wife, who had recently miscarried their child. John Harvey Kellogg, the founder and head doctor of the San, leads the patients with his brand of healthfulness, much of which is on the mark, with a few notable exceptions like radium treatment. Kellogg was a real man and was very influential at the time. He created the breakfast cereal industry and could certainly be described as a force of nature, which Boyle brings to the fore in this book. Here’s how it starts:
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-cereal coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene and some seventy-five other gastrically correct foods, paused to level his gaze on the heavyset woman in the front row. He was having difficulty believing what he’d just heard. As was the audience, judging from the gasp that arose after she’d raised her hand, stood shakily and demanded to know what was so sinful about a good porterhouse steak–it had done for the pioneers, hadn’t it? And for her father and his father before him?
The Doctor pushed reflectively at the crisp white frames of his spectacles. To all outward appearances he was a paradigm of concentration, a scientist formulating his response, but in fact he was desperately trying to summon her name-who was she, now? He knew her, didn’t he? That nose, those eyes… he knew them all, knew them by name, a matter of pride… and then, in a snap, it came to him: Tindermarsh. Mrs. Violet. Complaint, obesity. Underlying cause, autointoxication. Tindermarsh. Of course. He couldn’t help feeling a little self-congratulatory flush of pride–nearly a thousand patients and he could call up any one of them as plainly as if he had their charts spread out before him . … But enough of that–the audience was stirring, a monolithic force, one great naked psyche awaiting the hand to clothe it. Dr. Kellogg cleared his throat.
If you want to know what he says, you’ll have to get the book. ;>)
(As seen on WritingHistoricalNovels.com)
A friend of a friend recently asked me for some advice. She has written six books, but none have been traditionally published. She's self-published the last two and feels they are good enough for the big guys to pay attention. I gave her the following advice, which I think would apply to an awful lot of aspiring authors out there. Hope this helps.
Given your situation, here's my advice.
Keep track of who responds (I used a spreadsheet) and then throw away or delete the rejections. Negative thoughts are not allowed. You are an author. You just have to make the rest of the world realize it.
And nobody is going to do that but you.
I had the pleasure yesterday to meet Josh and Rebecca Tickell, who are filming a documentary called PUMP!, which is about the global economic impact of our reliance on gasoline. Part of the movie will be about Detroit, and they were interested in my historical perspective on the city and the impact of the auto industry during good times and bad.
I spent a couple of hours with them, and they filmed me for the majority of it. We'll see what stays off the cutting room floor, but the whole experience is awfully exciting for me!
Their previous film, Fuel, won the Sundance Audience Award and was short-listed for an Oscar. They are planning to finish the movie by the end of the year and then start sending it out to the world. Josh and Rebecca are both delightful people, passionate and personable. Hopefully, the film tears it up!