Flashback Friday: The 80-mile Detroit Electric Car From 105 Years Ago


Electric cars have always been around in one form or another, and when the auto industry was still in its infancy, electric vehicles were actually quite popular. To kick off a new series of articles looking at the green cars of yesteryear, we decided to go all the way back to the very beginning of the American car culture, when a little company called Detroit Electric was selling a 100% electric car with an advertised driving range of 80 miles.

That 80 mile range is about the same range that many more modern EVs have today, with their lithium-ion batteries. The Detroit Electric EV used a rechargeable lead-acid battery, though for $600 (about the cost of two Ford Model Ts) you could upgrade to an Edison battery that used nickel, lead, and sodium-hydroxide. Edison claimed these batteries had a shelf life of 100 years or more.

While the Detroit Electric had a top speed of just 25 mph (the Model T could go up to 45 mph), it is rumored that one particular Detroit Electric travelled more than 200 miles on a single charge. Impressive, no doubt, though the high cost ($2,650) meant that most people couldn’t afford to own an electric car. The most common customers were women and old folks, who had a hard time starting combustion engine-powered cars (this was before the advent of electric starters, mind you). Henry Ford even bought two Detroit Electrics for his wife, Clara.

Granted, cars this old didn’t have to deal with many safety regulations or demands from consumers that today’s car companies do. Because it was literally little more than an electrified carriage with primitive steering controls, range could be maximized. Building such a vehicle today would be impossible.

Production of the Detroit Electric began in 1907, and continued through 1939. While there were many highs and lows in the company’s brief history, it was ultimately the cheap price of gas that ended the reign of early electric cars. Today, these cars command a premium on the auction block as a resurgence of interest in EVs has brought out classic car fans seeking to own and restore this piece of history. One Detroit Electric will be hitting the Barrett-Jackson auction this weekend, and is expected to fetch close to $100,000 despite its unrestored state.

Will Detroit Electric make a comeback? Well back in 2009, Detroit Electric signed a deal with Proton to sell EVs in Malaysia, and in September to two companies finalized a $555 million agreement. Detroit Electric will build EVs on Proton’s platforms, with prices starting around $23,000. Can Detroit Electric make a comeback? Or will it again succumb to low-cost gasoline and inadequate battery technology?

Source: Wikipedia | The Daily Mail | DetroitElectric.org | Image: Sfoskett

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.
  • Detroit Electric won’t make a comeback, because the only thing left is the name.

    “That 80 mile range is about the same range that many more modern EVs have today, with their lithium-ion batteries”

    That 80 mile range is at a maximum of 25 mph, and probably more like 15-20 mph. Even with modern safety requirements and at a much cheaper price point, the Leaf will do 130 miles at 35 mph. The 2012 Zero S motorcycle will do 140 miles at 20-25 mph, and no doubt the 2013 bikes will go even farther if you want to spend an entire day traveling.

    • Christopher DeMorro

      @ protomech

      All valid points, but in the context of the era, it just about evens out if you ask me. The Ford Model T, as I mentioned, had a top speed of just 45 mph. So while 25 mph could hardly be considered fast, for the era, it was acceptable.

      Same with the Nissan Leaf, which has a top speed of 90 mph, whereas even a Toyota Corolla can go 115 mph.

      • Good point – also, keep in mind that range is not calculated, today, at 30-odd mph.

  • Some things still don’t change, for instance not being able to afford an electric car. The cost in 2011 dollars for this electric car would be $62976.51, still a pretty hefty price for any car but not as much as a decked out Tesla.

    • So … you see the cost of an electric car having dropped almost $40K and “nothing’s changed”? It must be cool to be such a wealthy dude that $40K = nothing.

    • If we compare gas to electric, though, instead of electric in early 1900s vs electric today, probably the relative pricing is fairly close.

  • Chuchundra

    Actually, you can buy an electic GEM car for under ten grand which is roughly comparable to this DE vehicle.

  • John Aislabie

    A 1912 Detroit Electric was present at last years Vancouver Electric Car show. The owner said that although the range was not great, a 15/20 mph average speed would comfortably give you 4 hours of happy motoring!

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