Rare Rides: The 1921 Detroit Electric 85A, a Very Early EV

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides the 1921 detroit electric 85a a very early ev

It’s fitting that the first electric vehicle ever featured in the Rare Rides series is today’s two-door Detroit Electric. One of the earliest electric cars, the luxurious Detroit Electric was whirring around cities when many people still used horses.

The Detroit Electric was produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company, previously a carriage builder. The business was founded in 1884 as the Anderson Carriage Company and started building electric cars in 1907. Once electric car sales took off, Anderson renamed itself in 1911.

Anderson’s cars were powered by rechargeable lead-acid batteries, which typically took up all the space in the vehicle’s front and rear compartments. A battery upgrade was offered between 1911 and 1916, and for a considerable $600 upcharge customers could have higher quality Edison nickel-iron batteries instead.

Typical range on a Detroit Electric was 80 miles, with a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Consumers were not concerned with such a low speed, as at the time it was considered adequate for town driving. The low top speed was also probably best because all Detroit Electrics had a hand tiller instead of a wheel. The company steadfastly refused to adopt steering wheels.

At the time, an electric vehicle was sold as a refined luxury experience that was quiet and dependable and did not require vigorous hand-cranking like a fuel-powered automobile. As a result, the Detroit Electric sold primarily to women who didn’t want to crank their car and doctors who didn’t want to risk damaging their hands. Detroit Electric knew their market and advertised directly to both consumer groups. Interiors were usually luxurious and took on a living-room-like appearance since the car has very few mechanical components to intrude upon the cabin. A wide variety of body styles were available and included coupes and touring cars, and even a sporty roadster.

Detroit Electric’s popularity was at its height circa the 1910s when Anderson shifted up to 2,000 examples per year. Sales fell off during the Great Depression, and as internal combustion engines became more reliable, less expensive, and less crude. The Detroit Electric cars stayed the same in appearance through the Thirties, at which point the company started to purchase bodies from Dodge and Willys to have a more modern look.

But even with new bodies, the power and speed of the developing combustion engine made for stiff competition. A switch to commercial sales focus meant ever fewer passenger examples were produced. Eventually, the passenger versions became special order only. In 1939 the company folded, with a production total of around 13,000 electric cars since inception.

Today’s Rare Ride is a charming two-door city car from 1921. It’s filled with heavy car batteries since the OEM batteries have not been available in nearly a century but has been otherwise maintained and restored. Its parlor is decorated in fine materials and upscale green velour. Yours for $69,500.

[Images: Detroit Electric]

Join the conversation
3 of 12 comments
  • Conundrum Conundrum on Feb 24, 2021

    The Baker Electrics were earlier than Detroit Electric, and Edison himself had one. Unfortunately, they were headquartered in Cleveland, a bit far away from the auto manufacturing hub of Detroit City, and croaked corporately by 1916, when Detroit Electric then had the field pretty much to itself, tiller steering and all. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baker_Motor_Vehicle EVs were common in the UK when I was a child in the 1950s, used on local delivery vans and milk floats in cities. The milkman one's had an elongated handle out the front with controls, so the poor bugger had to walk his rounds ahead of the float. The clanking of these things over manhole covers and potholes, shaking up the empties to a cacaphony of clinking bottles, is what used to wake me up of a morn. One thing about those old EVs -- they didn't need sophisticated "battery managment" systems like today's lithium wonders. And we all know how well non-replaceable lithium batteries with no management last in our smartphones.

    • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Feb 25, 2021

      "One thing about those old EVs — they didn’t need sophisticated “battery management” systems like today’s lithium wonders" You have a good point, there. My old Pinto used a mechanical relay thing as a voltage regulator for the whole car, including the charging system. Lead acid batteries are quite tolerant of abuse, even if their power density is low.

  • Mcs Mcs on Feb 25, 2021

    The battery management isn't that difficult. I just buy a module and I'm good to go. For me, it's no more difficult to design in a battery management module than a voltage regulator. In fact, it's actually easier because I'm now getting charge level and health data that I wouldn't get from older tech.

  • Jkross22 This might just be me, but the times that I've driven an EV, I use the brake regen paddles to quell my inner MT/control freak nature.
  • Randy in rocklin I had a 82 733 at one time. It was an awesome car. Good power and great handling. Smooth shifting and ride.
  • Jkross22 Gavin Newsom may not be aware of the fiscal problems of the state he leads, as his focus is on criticizing other states. It's actually better that he has someone shining a laser light on a map so he can stop making things worse here. Just lace his hair gel with some catnip and have him hit himself trying to get to it. Things in LA are getting so bad that even the leftists and progressives are showing up to LA city council meetings with mirrors to protest, well, everything - gas prices, the homeless pandemic, the house pricing pandemic, the crime pandemic. It shocked the City Council that their subjects dare attempt to ask for accountability. The Council president insisted that people with mirrors be escorted out, lest the council be reminded of their incompetence and hubris. That being said, there is no connection being made between the way LA subjects vote and the results it yields. Never underestimate the stupidity of the typical CA voter. The state is a basketcase but voters keep electing the same retreads every time.
  • ScarecrowRepair Too much for too little, unless you treat it strictly as a toy.
  • DedBull Mk2 Jettas are getting harder to find, especially ones that haven't been modified within an inch of their life. I grew up in an 85 GLI, and would love to have one in as close to stock configuration as I could get. This car isn't that starting point, especially sitting 3-4 years in the NY dirt. It's a parts car at best, but there might still be money in it even at that price, if you are willing to take it down to absolutely nothing left.