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Back to the (possible) future – The Revs Institute adds a 1917 Detroit Electric to its collection

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1917 Detroit Electric Model 68 B. Photos courtesy The Revs Institute.

The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida, houses a most impressive collection of automobiles, ranging from an 1896 Panhard & Levassor horseless carriage to a 1995 McLaren F1 supercar. Thanks to the generosity of a North Carolina benefactor, The Revs Institute recently added a pioneering vehicle of a different sort: a 1917 Detroit Electric Model 68 B, the museum’s very first electric vehicle.

As those familiar with automotive history know, electric vehicles are hardly a new development. In the early years of the 20th century, battery-electric cars were marketing alongside their gasoline-fueled rivals, each sold on a unique set of features. Gas-powered cars were difficult (and sometimes hazardous) to crank start, and keeping them running required a fair amount of mechanical aptitude. In some locations, regular gasoline availability could be problematic, and for longer journeys, travel often required a fair amount of advance planning (and occasionally, blind luck).

Electric cars, on the other hand, required no complicated starting procedure, and (assuming the batteries were charged), were available to go on a moment’s notice. Most offered more than adequate ranges, along with speeds that were fast enough to make them practical (though not exactly quick) on the dirt and gravel roads of the day. While electricity wasn’t always commonplace, those wealthy enough to afford an electric car were likely well-off enough to have homes wired for electric light, too.

1917 Detroit Electric Model 68

The Anderson Electric Car Company, originally founded as the Anderson Carriage Company, began producing The Detroit Electric Car in 1907. From its inception to 1920, when the firm changed its name to The Detroit Electric Car Company after spinning off body and motor / controller divisions, the firm constructed roughly 11,240 vehicles, and counted Thomas Edison, Mamie Eisenhower, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Clara Ford – Henry Ford’s wife – among its customers.

Though the firm also built electric trucks, most of its production was electric passenger cars, targeted specifically to affluent women motorists (for their ease of use) and physicians (for their immediate starting). Peak production occurred in the early 1910s, but surged again during World War I, when gasoline became an expensive commodity.

Early electric cars were not without their drawbacks, most notably price. In 1912, a Ford Model T Roadster or Torpedo carried a price of $590, while the range-topping Model T Town Car, with its six-passenger enclosed seating, sold for $900. A Detroit Electric model, on the other hand, sold for over $2,000 with lead-acid batteries, though customers desiring Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron batteries could procure them for an additional $600. Lead-acid batteries of the day had a tendency to leak and off-gas, corroding mechanical components beneath the car, and the lifespan of a Detroit Electric Car battery was guaranteed for 8,000 miles or two years, whichever came first.

1917 Detroit Electric Model 68

In 1917, The Anderson Electric Car Company introduced a new model designed to take advantage of manufacturing efficiencies to offer consumers a lower price. The Detroit Electric model 68 came in a single color – deep blue with a light blue stripe – though buyers had a choice of four colors for the Houk wire wheels and three selections of whip cord upholstery for the interior. Equipped with a 42-cell, 13-plate, 150 amp-hour battery, the model 68 delivered a range of 60-90 miles, combined with a top speed of up to 23 mph. It’s dramatically reduced selling price was $1,775, or over $500 cheaper than the least-expensive 1916 Detroit Electric model.

For The Anderson Electric Car Company, even this sizable price reduction was too little, too late. The electric starter, patented by Charles Kettering in 1915, soon made crank-starting a car obsolete, while mass production on a grand scale reduced the price of the Ford Model T to just $295 in 1925. From 1920 until 1939, when The Detroit Electric Car Company closed its doors, the company would build just 1,450 more vehicles, though it would also offer restoration services for existing owners (and potential new owners).

The 1917 Detroit Electric Model 68 B donated to The Revs Institute was updated and reconditioned by the factory in 1935, then sold to Mrs. B.F. Keith in Beaumont, Texas, for $1,095. Described by the factory as a cabriolet, the Model 68 featured an aluminum roof with sliding door windows for ventilation, seating for up to five, and the first curved window glass used in a production automobile. Control was via a pair of levers, including a tiller for steering and a five-position hand throttle for selecting an appropriate forward speed. These levers could be raised to allow easier entry to the cabin, and could also be locked in the upward position to prevent theft. Rear-wheel drum brakes were operated via a foot pedal, and a separate parking brake locked the rear wheels when engaged.

1917 Detroit Electric Model 68

The Revs Institute’s Model 68 was inherited by the donor from his father, and a partial restoration (undercarriage and battery compartment) was carried out along with needed mechanical repairs prior to its presentation. Today, the car is operational, though it will be thoroughly inspected and serviced prior to being placed on display.

For additional information on The Revs Institute, visit RevsInstitute.org.