(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.