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The Detroit Electric – An Upstart In The City That Ran on Gasoline

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  • The Chief of the Detroit Fire Department in his 1910 Model “L” Runabout, “Cycle and Auto Trade Journal”, May 10, 1910

Like many early automobile manufacturers, the Detroit Electric Car Company got its start in the carriage trade. Milton, Ontario native William C. Anderson began building buggies in Port Huron, Michigan in 1884. A relocation to Detroit in 1895 to be closer to his largest market and a partnership with financier William A. Pungs and fellow Canadian William M. Locke led to eventual expansion into the manufacture of automobile bodies and consideration of producing a complete car. It was to be an electric and was designed in collaboration with Anderson’s chief engineer, George M. Bacon. Motors and sophisticated controllers were supplied by Elwell-Parker.

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  • Details of the 1910 Models “D” and “L”, “The Automobile” September, 1909

The first Detroit Electric appeared in 1907 and by the end of the year, 125 cars had been produced. The company name was chosen because “Anderson” was already being used by a number of other builders. They quickly established a reputation as well built, easy to drive cars. Sales grew in each succeeding year peaking at 4500 in 1914, after which their numbers began to decline, a trend widely attributed to the success of Charles Kettering’s electric starter for gasoline engines. An advertising slogan of the day stated the Detroit Electric would “take you anywhere that an automobile may go with a mileage radius farther than you will ever care to travel in a day” to allay customer fears of being stranded with dead batteries.

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  • 1932 Detroit Electric Model 99 photo courtesy of Alden Jewell

After the First World War, the firm concentrated on their more successful line of commercial vehicles which would remain very popular in larger cities, although limited numbers of private cars would be produced in the ensuing years. Starting in 1920, they assumed a more conventional appearance like the 1932 Model 99, above. By the time the company closed its doors for good in 1938, it had become the builder of the most popular and long-lived, electric vehicles ever to be sold in the United States. You can see more interesting electric vehicles on The Old Motor.

3 responses to “The Detroit Electric – An Upstart In The City That Ran on Gasoline

  1. I found a link to a photo of a 1937 Detroit electric on Flickr, and the caption says that the body was from a Chrysler (though this appears to apply only to the front end) and that it had “a VERY odd method of steering.” There’s no more info about this, though notably, there’s no steering wheel is visible through the windows, though other 1930s Detroit electrics seem to have had one. Does anyone have any idea what this method of steering was? Had they reverted to a tiller?

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