By on February 23, 2021

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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12 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1921 Detroit Electric 85A, a Very Early EV...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    This one comes complete with a ‘heads-down’ display. Love it.

  • avatar

    I wonder what the range on this would be if you swapped in Tesla batteries of equivalent weight… It looks like roughly 1kwh for a high-ish capacity 12-volt car battery, which would make 18kwh and 900lbs for the whole car. The LR model 3’s pack is about 100lbs more, so we’ll assume that capacity could fit in the same space, and is 75kwh, if I’m not mistaken.

    Assuming modern lead acids do better than the original 80 mile range – let’s say 100 miles to make the math easy and conservative – that means it should be possible to get 4.16x the range with a swap to Tesla batteries, making for a bladder-busting 416-mile range at 20mph! Of course, this doesn’t account for other electronics necessary to run the car on Tesla’s batteries, but it’s kind of funny to imagine a 400-mile-range, 100-year-old EV…

    • 0 avatar
      Steve S.

      Jay Leno is on it.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      For poops and giggles I put an SSD adapter in my iPod classic. While I was in there I realized this left room for a bigger battery and replaced the 700ish mAh one and dropped in a 3000 mAh. I think it gets charged once a month now. I’d imagine what you propose would be similar.

      I use the old school iPod because I can use it places where devices that transmit are a no go (and I love the click wheel).

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Whenever I see an early electric car, I am reminded of a black and white episode of Dennis the Menace. It’s been a long time since I watched it on Nickelodeon in the 80s/90s but the premise was that Dennis somehow won a Baker Electric car in a raffle or something and he was going to give it to his mom as a surprise. Meanwhile, his dad also bought her a new car as a surprise. This was set in the early-60s, so even then the Baker was a relic. But I always think of the line:
    When your electric car runs out of electricity, you can drive your gas car. And when it runs out of gas, you can drive your electric car!

  • avatar

    These are pretty neat. I know someone that owns one (used to have two) the tiller steering is really fun. Pretty simple things but fairly nice trim inside.

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    They used an adapted elevator motor.
    Cadillac’s 1913 introduction of an electric starter spelled it’s demise as electricity was about the same price then as now (except for Texas last week) and gasoline was 10 cents/gallon.
    One near my home kept running until the 1980’s when new lead acid batteries breathed new life into it.

  • avatar

    Speed controllers on these ancient cars are brilliant, they connect the batteries in different serial-parallel combos using a rotating mechanical drum with contact pads on it. Acts as a cruise control at the same time.

  • avatar

    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.

    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.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      “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.

  • avatar

    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.

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