By: Joe Siano
The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida — with its extensive archives and more than 100 historically significant vehicles in the Collier Collection — chronicles the automobile with pictures, words and wheels. So it may surprise some that it has only just now acquired its first electric car.
In keeping with the institute’s mission, this one predates the Tesla and the Chevrolet Bolt by a ways — about a century. The car is a 1917 Detroit Electric, built in Detroit by the Anderson Electric Car Company (later the Detroit Electric Car Company). Anderson is generally considered to be the most successful of the first wave of electric car manufacturers.
All told, the company built 12,690 cars from 1907 to 1932. After that, it built only 15 more — along with some factory restorations — before ceasing operations in the late 1930s.
The Revs car, VIN 193503, underwent such a rehab in 1935. It received more-modern wire spoke wheels and restyled fenders, as well as renovations to its electrical switching and battery compartment, As a “fresh” 1935 model, it was shipped to a Mrs. B.F. Keith in Beaumont, Texas (for $1,095 F.O.B.).
The Detroit Electric’s donor, from North Carolina, chose The Revs Institute for his gift, knowing the car would get a caring home. He received the car from his father’s estate and had recently commissioned light mechanical repairs and restoration of the undercarriage and battery compartments.
It drives and runs in its present (note we didn’t say “current”) condition. The plan is to demonstrate it occasionally and display it at the museum, once it is fully inspected and serviced, and some additional conservation has been done.
“We are excited to have our first early electric car within the collection to study and share with our volunteers and the general public,” said Scott George, vice-president of The Revs Institute. “We look forward to sharing the stories that this car will represent.”
The U.S. Department of Energy says the first practical electric car in America was made in 1890, and by 1900, about a third of all cars on the road were electrics.
In the earliest days of electrics, there was no such thing as range anxiety for a simple reason: You were more likely to run out of passable roads before you ran out of a charge. The Model 68 B (of which VIN 193503 is an example) was advertised as having a range of 80 miles between charges (the Chevrolet Bolt’s advertised range is 238) and a top speed of 20 miles per hour. And under the circumstances, who could really ask for more? Beyond city and town centers, roads were rutted dirt paths much more suited to horse-drawn vehicles.
And while women couldn’t yet vote nationwide, they could drive — although it wasn’t a very pleasant experience, whoever you were. Crank-starting a gasoline-powered car was strenuous and physically dangerous. If you failed to retard the spark first, you could be hit when the crank kicked back, suffering all manner of broken bones. Early gasoline engines were smelly, noisy and often incontinent when it came to oil, and anyone who has ever tried to drive a Model T knows the sort of dexterity it took.
No surprise, then, that Detroit Electric pitched its advertising to two demographics who needed a car that would start effortlessly and quickly: doctors and women. Among the owners of Detroit Electrics were the wives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
But electric cars were not without their antisocial habits. No. 193503 had lead acid batteries, which dropped acid long before Timothy Leary redefined the phrase. Combined with their batteries’ off-gassing, they were not the environmentally friendly things we think of with modern electrics (maybe that’s why it sure seems odd to call them EVs). The corrosive effects of this likely required the undersides to be redone every 5 to 10 years.
All this is to say nothing of the real “range anxiety” with the first electrics: Much of rural America was out of range of electricity.
When Charles Kettering’s electric starter first made it into production 1912, it was the beginning of the eclipse of the first generation of electric cars. That followed the advent of the affordable Model T, and with the gradual spread of gasoline stations and better roads, the electric car had seen its (first) heyday. In fact, the company that built VIN 193503 made only 1,450 cars (barely more than 12 percent of its total production run) after 1920.
So when you are humming along in your Tesla or Bolt — or any other EV — feeling self-satisfied as an early adopter, think of all those adopters who beat you by more than a century. Maybe it will relieve the range anxiety.