Detroit Electric & i3

‘The Good Old Days’

Saturday 26th July 2014

Back to the good old days – to a time when everything moved at a slower pace, including the first Electric Cars.

Edison Garage Charging Station

Edison Car Charging Station

A few months ago I went to the Thomas Edison Museum in West Orange NJ as we were looking for a venue for our annual meeting for the New Jersey Electric Auto Association and thought it would be an interesting location. One of the spaces offered to us was Edison’s garage which at that time had two electric cars from Edison’s day on display. The garage was fascinating, with its original car charging station that had electric light bulbs that would light up as the cars were charging. Once all the lightbulbs were lit up, the car was fully charged. We were able to look at the cars and as soon as I saw Mrs. Edison’s Electric Car, I knew that I would like to drive that car. I can just see myself now sat in the car happily pootling down the road to my exercise class, it would certainly be a conversation starter.

"1920DetroitElectricAd" by Public domain US advertisement, Previously uploaded to en:Wikipedia by User Infrogmation on en.wikipedia - Scanned from 1920 US magazine by Infrogmation. Previously uploaded to en:Wikipedia by Infrogmation, from en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here00:36, 12 February 2004 Infrogmation 276x812 (87,965 bytes) (Detroit Electric automobile ad from February, 1920 magazine). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“1920DetroitElectricAd” by Public domain US advertisement

Mrs. Edison drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47, made by The Anderson Electric Car Company. I can picture her sat in the car, driving around town looking quite spectacular. The Detroit Electric particularly appealed to women as it was so easy to start, there was no engine to crank to get the car started – That was a good thing as back then petrol cars were very hard to start and not very reliable.  Men, even though they liked the electric car, were not so keen to be seen in it as they thought it showed that they were weak. Silly men! But all the better for women like Mrs. Edison, as she would get to drive the car more often.

These early Electric Cars on the road might not have gone very fast, about 20mph, but it has been reported that one did go 211 miles on a charge, that’s pretty good for that time period, not bad for today. It was sold as having a typical range of about 80 miles which is equivalent to many current EV’s today.  Which brings up an interesting question – Why has the range not increased much in the last 100 years? The speed, however, was just fine for those days as they were driven mainly within the town or city with not much long distance driving.

Over a period of 32 years there were 13,000 Detroit Electric Cars built, I wonder what happened to them all? I was surprised to learn that the Detroit Electric was still available until 1942, although the last one was actually shipped in 1939. During the late 1920’s sales of the car dropped significantly and by the 1930’s they were only being manufactured to special order so only a handful were made. I would like to think that they would have continued producing electric cars but, a few things happened; Petrol prices came down after World War 1, stinky old petrol engines became more refined and, they produced an electric starter for the petrol car, so there was no more difficult cranking of the engine. Unfortunately, all of these things didn’t help electric car sales. ‘Tis a shame I say, a terrible shame!

It took around 60 years for the next full production electric car to find its way back onto the roads. Although, if the Detroit Electric had continued to be made, then they would have changed significantly over the years and, would probably resemble the EV’s that we see on the road today.

There is something to be said for the good old days and I rather like the style of the 1900’s electric cars. I’d love the opportunity to take one of those early electric cars and put in a new battery pack and update the interior. I think it would look brilliant and be so much fun to drive around in, and of course, very different from everything else on the road today.

One similarity I find very interesting is that the Detroit Electric had narrow tyres as does the BMW i3. Could there be a reason for this? Did they know something back in 1911 that we have only just worked out today?

(Of course there is much more history to the Electric Car, I have just touched on one part of that history as it relates to me at this time. I must point out here that the first practical production electric car was built by the English Inventor Thomas Parker in London in 1884.)


“1915 Detroit Electric”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0


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  • Nice writeup. nnBesides the 80 mile range, the 7 kW charging hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. In fact some auto manufactures took a step down by offering PEVs with just 40 miles range, and/or 3.3 kW charging. (0.5x of historic PEVs).nnLooking forward to when ~150 mile range PEVs with ~15-20 kW charging are common place (2x improvement) u2026 as the future becomes just another day. :)nn

  • greentrans

    It all points to that this technology was withhold internationaly from the beginning.

  • Red Sage

    Electric cars have always been fun to drive, fun to ride in. It is a real shame that such an effort has been made to remove the fun factor from driving anything affordable today. So much so that people are actually suggesting that the Tesla Model u2630 should be a nice, slow, ordinary, everyday, wimpy, Toyota Camry clone so as not to upset new buyers. Luckily, Tesla Motors is sure to ignore those requests to my absolute glee and eternal delight.

  • Surya

    I think the narrow tires are the result of early car makers mimicking horse carriages. Those had big, narrow wheels. Cars just copied those and refined those over time.nThe range might have been similar, but performance and most of all safety was very different. Safety is important here, as so many safety features add a lot of weight to the car, requiring more powerful motors, requiring bigger batteries for the same range.

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