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]

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  • 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.

  • Bullnuke It may be awhile before these show up on US shores. The MV Fremantle Highway has just started demo/reconstruction in Rotterdam after the large fire when transporting its last shipment of electric Porsche products.
  • Fie on Fiasler Big, fast and thirsty does not equal good. True luxury is not cobbled together by the UAW.
  • Inside Looking Out I see it as gladiator races - only one survives in virtual world.
  • Crown They need to put the EcoDiesel back in the Grand Cherokee. I have a 2018 and it has been the most reliable vehicle I ever owned. 69,000 miles and only needed tires, and regular oil and fuel filter changes.
  • El scotto Y'all are overthinking this. Find some young hard-charging DA seeking the TV limelight to lock this kid up. Heck, have John Boehner come up from Cincy to help the young DA get his political career going. Better yet, have the young DA spin this as hard as he or she can; I'm the candidate for Law and Order, I defied our go-easy office and leadership to get this identified criminal locked up. Oh this could be spun more than a hyper active kid's top.Now I'd do some consulting work for Little Kings Original Cream Ale and Skyline Chili.