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 As an unpublished author, I needed a conspiracy.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.