Before there was Henry Ford's Model T, there was the Detroit Electric Car Company's Tornado. It is protagonist Will Anderson's pride and joy in D. E. Johnson's Detroit Shuffle. Johnson's fictional Anderson is supposedly the son of the actual founder of Detroit Electric, William C Anderson. Even today, the company is touted as one of the most, if not the most, successful electric car manufacturer in the United States, with total sales from 1907 to 1939 of approximately 13,000 vehicles, including trucks and, later, ambulances. So popular were their cars that Clara Ford, wife of Henry, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham.
Indeed, in a time when most jaunts from home to work or market were under 20 miles round trip and required speeds no greater than 15 mph, electric cars were exceedingly popular. Although Johnson's Anderson claims his Tornado has speeds up to 45 mph. With upwards of 150 electric car manufacturers from Detroit to Denver to Paris and Hamburg, they were made to order for the urban sophisticate. Easy to start, no backbreaking handcrank to jumpstart an internal combustion engine, quiet and odorless - save a faint whiff of ozone while charging - and no filthy exhaust fumes, these vehicles also gained great appeal among women. With women's suffrage rights gaining momentum across the country, millions of women were inspired to drop their aprons and assume a greater roll in politics and the economy; to engage in the social activities of their male counterparts - smoking in public and driving.
However the vehicle's main drawback quickly became its undoing - its limited range. By the mid-1920s, demand for a vehicle that could travel longer distances and at a quicker speed brought electric car sales to a near standstill. The fossil fuel-burning engine provided the answer to both, and soon only the staunchest electric vehicle manufacturers continued to serve a tiny market of urbanites and local delivery trucks.
Despite it's decidedly waning popularity, the desire among certain circles - mainly engineers - for an efficient, reasonably priced, high performing electric vehicle never disappeared. Over the next half century designers persisted in attempting to invent a car battery that could meet the needs of the average suburban driver. During the 1970s gasoline shortages, interest in a clean, economical electric car was refueled, so to speak. Efforts by private individuals, as well as a cooperative project between General Electric and the Federal Government, all failed to produce a car that flamed public interest. The joint GE/Fed project created the first computer controlled hybrid-electric vehicle. When GE couldn't sell the car to a big automobile company, it sold the computer technology, which Toyota later improved upon, allowing it to eventually produce the hybrid Prius, with both a gasoline-powered engine and a battery-powered motor.
As the saying goes, everything old is new again. With the introduction of several fully electric or hybrid autos (Chevy Volt, Honda Insight, etc.), the non-fossil fueled car is enjoying a comeback thanks to both global environmental concerns and fuel economy. This is particularly true among a new generation of drivers who are moving back into the cities from distant suburbs. Additionally, a resurrected Detroit Electric plans to premier a snazzy electric sports car next year. The clean, green electric vehicle just may rise from the dead after all.
This article is from the November 6, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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