Looking Back: 1,060 miles in an electric car a century ago

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 7, 2016


This small sales pamphlet, in the Birmingham Museum’s collection, is an advertisement for the Detroit Electric Car, which was built by the Anderson Carriage Co.

Anderson Carriage originally manufactured horse-drawn vehicles and, like many companies, later switched to automobiles as the industry evolved. In 1909, two Anderson employees decided to drive an electric model of the car from Detroit to Atlantic City, New Jersey. The promotional pamphlet boasts that the entire trip was made in an automobile that had not been modified in any way: The battery was not replaced during the journey, they arrived in Atlantic City with no broken parts, and the only mechanical setback the drivers faced was a hole in one of their Goodyear tires.

The booklet contains 34 black-and-white photos detailing many of the conditions that the drivers met along their journey.

Electric cars were incredibly popular early in the 20th century, particularly among doctors, who made quick house calls, and society ladies, who wanted independence without sacrificing charm. Both groups needed a car that started easily and reliably, which crank-start gasoline engines couldn’t guarantee. Even Henry Ford chose to purchase Detroit Electric vehicles over his own company’s cars for his wife, Clara, from 1908 and 1914.

Of the over 4,000 cars produced by all manufacturers in 1900, roughly 28 percent were electric. In large cities, up to a third of all the automobiles on the road were electric cars.

Assembly line production of the Model T in 1910 meant the gasoline-powered automobiles became cheaper to own than the majority of electric models on the market. In 1914, the first electric starter for gasoline-powered cars was invented, doing away with the business of cranking and taking away a major selling point of the electric car. By the 1920s, electric cars were relegated to niche markets, and gas-powered cars reigned supreme on American roads.

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at the Birmingham Museum