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Electric Vehicles History Part IV

Early History (cont'd)

In 1900, Canadian Motors Limited produced the Motette, a small two-seater, for about three years; and around the same time, Henry and Clem Studebaker entered the electric car market with a light runabout before switching to internal combustion cars six years later.

1901 The Pan-American Exposition was held from May 1st to November 1st. The fair was lit by the power of Niagara Falls and was centered on a tower of lights. President McKinley was shot, then driven to the hospital in a Riker electric ambulance. Neither survived the year.

Edison patented a nickel-iron battery, it needed improvement.

Peter Cooper Hewitt patented the mercury vapor rectifier, making the conversion of alternating current, to the direct current required to charge batteries, cheaper and more efficient.

1902 The Studebaker Brothers build their first 20 electric cars.

Porsche made a hybrid version of the Lohner electric.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche with the first hybrid motor vehicle

After a front-drive Lohner-Porsche carriage sparked interest at the 1900 Paris Salon
, a four-wheel-drive version was built. The latter model's storage battery weighed nearly two tons so Porsche added a pair of generators driven by 2.5-hp Daimler IC engines to extend operating range. What Porsche called "mixte" (mixed) propulsion successfully powered military vehicles, fire-fighting equipment, and Mercedes automobiles

The Columbus Buggy Co. started making electric cars. Personnel included Clinton Dewitt and Harvey S. Firestone, Eddie Rickenbacker, Lee Frayer, and George M. Bacon.

Walter Baker's Torpedo
May 31,1902 A beautiful Memorial Day weekend was the coup de grāce for racing on public roads. Walter C. Baker, a 34-year-old engineering graduate of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland who had been building electric vehicles for several years, unveiled an electric racer of unusual design dubbed the "Road Torpedo." Baker mounted a torpedo-shaped frame of wood and angle iron on 36-inch wire wheels with wooden rims and three-inch pneumatic tires. The body was covered with oilcloth and painted black, as were the wheel disks. The Torpedo was the first car to have an aerodynamic body that enclosed both driver and platform. Under the torpedo-shaped body was tandem seating for a driver in the front, and an electrician behind switching the battery as the car gained speed. It had a 12 H.P. Elwell-Parker motor. The 3,100 pound vehicle marked the world's first use of a safety belt.

Baker took his vehicle to Ormond Beach, Florida and pushed it to a speed of 104 miles an hour, a new official speed record. He took the vehicle out many times to demonstrate its speed, supposedly reaching 127 miles an hour before the wheels fell off his vehicle and he went skittering down the beach. For a brief shining moment in history, Walter C. Baker was the fastest human alive. Undeterred from his quest for speed he went back to his shop and designed an electric racer that was far more powerful than that which went before. During its first test on a Staten Island Speedway he crashed into the crowd which had gathered to watch, killing two spectators. Walter Baker's place in history was assured for his official record of 104 miles an hour, a record for electric vehicles that stood for 64 years; however, after the crash in Staten Island, he would never race again.

1902 Waverley Electric Automobile
Indianapolis, Indiana.

1903 One could buy a gas Oldsmobile for $650, a Stanley steam Runabout for $650, a Cadillac for $750, the first model A Ford for $750, a Baker electric Runabout for $850, the Columbia Mk III was still available for $1,500, or a Buffalo electric Stanhope for $1,650.

Krieger teamed with Brasier (of same ownership) to make a Parisian hybrid.

1904 The US finally out-produced France to become the world's largest automobile maker, a record held until 1980 when the torch was passed to Japan.

German electric car, 1904, with the chauffeur on top.

1905 Rauch & Lang of Cleveland was a leading maker of luxury carriages. They chose electric propulsion for their luxury horseless coach. This was likely the tipping point for Anderson finding the new money to start making the Detroit Electric.

1906 William C. Anderson recapitalized the Anderson Carriage Company to make cars under the Detroit Electric brand. George M. Bacon from the Columbus Buggy Company was lead design engineer. Bacon chose the Elwell-Parker motor/controller. It remains to date as the most efficient motor/control system for battery electric propulsion.

A Stanley steam car with a torpedo body set a new land speed record of 127 MPH. Electric car builders give up the speed tests.

1907  Anderson delivered an electric Coupe to a Miss Grove of Chicago, shipped September 30, 1907. By the end of 1907 five Victorias and Five Coupes had been shipped. The early cars were the model A or B Victoria, model C two-passenger Coupe, and model D four-passenger Brougham. The Coupe and Brougham were fully enclosed. The Brougham had the distinctive curved glass front quarter windows, and carriage style body; this was to be the classic signature design. Most earlier Broughams followed horse drawn design and put the driver high and outside, as if they still had to look over the horse. From the start Detroit Electrics were built with the driver on the inside. The Coupes were similar to the Rauch & Lang or Baker, but those cars had straighter lines, and the suicide doors that were characteristic of the Cleveland coachbuilders. Anderson's big seller at this time was a light one-seat, one-horse buggy that sold for twenty-five dollars. The first Detroit Electric appeared in June of 1907, and by the end of the year 125 cars had been manufactured. Anderson offered their first closed car, the Inside-Drive Coupe in 1908, and soon established a reputation as well-built, easy-to-drive cars. 400 Detroit Electrics were built in 1908, 650 in 1909, and 1,500 in 1910. 

1908 Edison finally introduced his improved nickel-Iron battery.

In October Henry Ford started production of the model T, marking the beginning of the end for many low price US car builders, however it was no world-beater at first. The same year he bought his first Detroit Electric, a model C coupe. It was for his wife Clara and had a special child seat for Edsel.

1908 Studebaker Electric

1909 Anderson bought the controlling 92-1/2% interest in Elwell-Parker Electric Co. from Brown Hoist for about half a million dollars, Towson negotiated the other 7-1/2% from ECC Ltd. thereby securing exclusive use of their designs and patents for an efficient DC motor and control system.

1909 Baker Electric
1909 Baker Suburban Runabout

Jay Leno in his 1909 Baker Electric (on right)

1910 Edison chose Detroit Electric (and Bailey) to introduce his improved "nickel-steel" alkaline battery (patent 1901, improved 1908). It was not too popular due to its higher initial cost (an additional $600 or more). And a charging inefficiency of 30% (it's like a third of the gasoline runs down the gutter when you fill your tank). The first Edison battery was installed February 16 in an all red Model L shipped to Denver. In 1911 as many as half the cars were shipped with the Edison battery, by 1912 demand was tapering off.

The recently formed Electric Vehicle Association of America standardized the EV charging plug with one type in two sizes.

The Ford family bought their second Detroit Electric. According to the shipping ledger it was sold to Edsel Ford. It was a model D Brougham shipped March 8th 1910 with a blue leather interior, a silk satin headliner, and an all blue exterior. The battery was built at the Anderson factory with Willard Plates.

1911 Anderson Carriage Co. became Anderson Electric Car Co. Car model designations go from letters to numbers. This was a year of great transition for the company. A staggering 23 models were offered, as most of the body types were available with any of the three chain drive systems, or the new shaft drive system.

1912 Charles Franklin Kettering invented the electric starter at his Dayton Electric Co. (DELCO) reducing the advantage of electric cars over gas.

This was the model year where Anderson got its act together and started producing the classic broughams that would be their best sellers, with little change, until 1919. The cars featured comfortable weather tight cabins, quiet, dependable, shaft drive, and fully skirted fenders that dramatically reduced the problem of water, mud, and stones, thrown up by the wheels.

1913 Ford (who was beginning to lose market share) started making the model T on the first modern assembly line. The lower cost made the motorcar available to many more Americans and put most other low price car companies out of business.

1914 John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought a Detroit Electric model 46 Roadster for his wife Abbie.

1912 Detroit Electric - The Anderson Electric Car Co.


Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the electrical genius at General Electric, bought a model 48 Detroit Electric Brougham (blue/blue).

Ford started paying "loyal" workers five dollars a day. He bought a third Detroit Electric (model 47) for Clara that they never sell.

The Milburn Wagon Co. started making a lighter and cheaper electric, giving a significant challenge to Detroit Electric's sales leadership. During the years that Milburn made electrics they produced about 3,400 cars, while Anderson/Detroit shipped 6,672.   

1915 The Detroit Electric is standardized with heavy chassis (type A), and light chassis (Type B) versions, both on a 100 inch wheel base. The heavy chassis cars were usually the large broughams (front, rear, or duplex drive), with some smaller broughams, roadsters, and cabriolets. The type "B" light chassis cars were the less expensive, ladder frame, four-passenger small Broughams and Coupes, clearly designed to compete with the recently introduced, lower priced, Milburn Light Electric.

1915 Detroit Electric Drive Train

Edison got a fifteen million dollar Navy contract for his battery in March of 1915, making them unavailable for the 1916 model year. The last Detroit shipped with an Edison Battery was on April 5th 1915.

Baker Electric merged with Rauch & Lang (German for "smoke & long") to resolve patent disputes. The cars and management of Owen Magnetic, plus capitol and management from General Electric were folded in.

1916 Detroit Electric Chassis

In 1917, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was released by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. The hybrid was a commercial failure, proving to be too slow for its price, and too difficult to service. Advances in ICE technology soon rendered this advantage moot; the greater range of gasoline cars, quicker refueling times, and growing petroleum infrastructure, along with the mass production of gasoline vehicles by companies such as the Ford Motor Company, which reduced prices of gasoline cars to less than half that of equivalent electric cars, led to a decline in the use of electric propulsion, effectively removing it from important markets such as the United States by the 1930s.

1918 The remaining electric car companies expanded into a diminishing market, with the double impact of World War I, and the influenza pandemic. Sales at Detroit Electric fell from 1,139 units in 1918 to 191 in 1920.

1919 In the wartime economy the bodyworks, electrical component manufacturing, Material handling vehicles, and automobile making interests, became acutely diverged. The various parts of Baker R & L, and Detroit Electric, split back into these segments. The other remaining volume producer was Milburn, they were never vertically integrated in the first place.

1919 Detroit Electric - Detroit Electric Car Co.
1920 W. C. Anderson, A. C. Downing, J. D. Wilson, & Frank Price continue the Detroit Electric car business from the Hupp plant at 6561 Mt. Elliot. Bodies were from old stock or were the new faux-radiator square-bodies from H&M Body in Racine WI. The main factory became part of Murray Body.

The Rauch & Lang brand was purchased by Stevens-Duyea, and they made electric taxies in Chicopee Falls MA until 1930. The coach building and material handling truck businesses stayed in Cleveland under the Baker-Raulang Company. Only two companies made electric passenger cars in any number for the next few years, Detroit and Milburn.

The decline of the electric vehicle was brought about by several major developments:

  • By the 1920s, America had a better system of roads that now connected cities, bringing with it the need for longer-range vehicles.
  • The discovery of Texas crude oil reduced the price of gasoline so that it was affordable to the average consumer.
  • The invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912 eliminated the need for the hand crank.
  • The initiation of mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford made these vehicles widely available and affordable in the $500 to $1,000 price range. By contrast, the price of the less efficiently produced electric vehicles continued to rise. In 1912, an electric roadster sold for $1,750, while a gasoline car sold for $650.

1923 Milburn gave up and sold to their main body client General Motors.

1926 It is likely that no entirely new Detroit Electrics were produced after mid-year.

1929 W. C. Anderson, seventy-five and in failing health, sold the company. The last Detroit Electric under Anderson was shipped 7-11-29.

The Middle Years (1930-1960)

Electric vehicles had all but disappeared by 1935. The years following until the 1960s were dead years for electric vehicle development and for use as personal transportation.

1930 Car company liquidater Alfred O. Dunk purchased Detroit Electric and continued limited production under the same name. Their principal business was in turning earlier large broughams into model 98's and light chassis 4-passenger broughams into model 97's, they also made "new" model 99A's with a Willys body. The last Dunk car was shipped November 17th. 1932.

In Chicopee Falls the last Rauch & Langs are made, a trio of Owen style hybrids.

In the 1930s, National City Lines, which was a partnership of General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California purchased many electric tram networks across the country to dismantle them and replace them with GM buses. The partnership was convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of equipment and supplies to their subsidiary companies conspiracy, but were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the provision of transportation services. Electric tram line technologies could be used to recharge BEVs and PHEVs on the highway while the user drives, providing virtually unrestricted driving range. The technology is old and well established (see : Conduit current collection, Nickel-iron battery). The infrastructure has not been built.

1933 Dunk's company was liquidated. Dunk employee Alfred F. Renz got the Detroit Electric related assets and continued limited production of cars as The Detroit Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Company (registered October 16th, 1933). From remaining stock, or with a Dodge coupe body, Renz made another 15 "new" cars, the last of which was shipped 2-23-39.

1941 W.W.II put a stop to personal vehicle manufacturing so Renz sold the metallic assets as scrap for the war effort, then retired Detroit Electric as the most successful electric car company in the twentieth century producing 12,350-13,000 pleasure cars and 535 trucks.

After the war the automobile boom was all gas, the electric vehicle was relegated to public transportation and specialty niches such as vehicles on the factory floor, and city delivery routes. From the 1960's forward many individuals and companies have made prototype cars, conversions of gas cars, and small production runs of electric cars. But so far the car of the future remains a car of the past.


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Some information extracted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. See Terms of Use for details.Significant material contributed by Galen Handy


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