A Brief History of Electric Cars by John Mahoney

             As you were driving around town today, there is a good chance you might have seen a Tesla automobile without realizing what it was.  After all, it doesn’t say TESLA in big letters on the side of the car.  The car has the appearance of many other modern day cars, with only the “T” on the trunk lid telling you it’s a Tesla.  With 300,000 of them on the road today there is a good chance you’ll pass, or more likely get passed, by one of these quick, quiet, and smokeless wonders.  And with a range of more than 300 miles, you’ll probably have to stop for gas before the electric-powered Tesla needs to recharge its batteries.

             With gas prices and pollution on the rise, it makes sense to have an all-electric vehicle.  It makes you wonder why someone hadn’t thought about making electric cars before.  Well, they did… more than 100 years ago!

            In 1890, William Morrison, a chemist from Des Moines, Iowa, built the first successful electric car in America.  Morrison built a big, six passenger wagon that once ran for 13 hours straight at a blistering 14 miles per hour (mph). 

1923 Detroit -- RA 125.jpg

            Electric cars during the early 1900s was limited to mostly in and around major cities, as highways and paved roads were not common in rural parts of the country.  Women and doctors especially liked the cleanliness and get-in-and-go feature of electric vehicles.   Prior to 1912, when the electric starter was invented, you had to hand crank a gasoline-powered vehicle to start it, which required a little bit of oomph to turn over the engine. Then there was the vibration, smell, noise, and grit associated with internal combustion engines.   

            Electric cars, or any car for that matter, were cost prohibitive during the early 20th century and mostly owned by the well-to-do members of society.  Even the Model T, which was introduced in 1908, had an initial price of $850. Considering you could buy a new house out of a Sears’ Catalog for as little as $650, the Model T was a lot of money. Thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, in 1913, the production of a Model T went from 12 hours down to 2 hours and 30 minutes. This resulted in the price of the Model T eventually falling to less than $300, making vehicle ownership a reality to the masses. And with driving becoming more prevalent, so did roadways.

            Because of increased traveling distances, and reduced costs and ease of operation of gasoline-powered cars, electric vehicle ownership sharply declined. Battery life also played a large impact as the top speed of these electrics were limited to around 25 mph, with a driving range of 70-80 miles before recharging. The Model T on the other hand could travel up to 45 mph, and could refill its tank instantly with gas, versus the long charging period of electrics. While the Detroit Electric Company managed to produce cars up until 1939, by then electric cars were dinosaurs by comparison and nearly extinct. But, as we’re seeing today, electrics are becoming more commonplace and realistic to own. Vehicles powered by fossil fuels might just become fossils themselves!

1923 Detroit -- RA 097.jpg

            Here at Coastal Classics we had the privilege of restoring a Detroit Electric.  This was a 1923 Model 97b that came to the shop in relative good shape, but it had an incorrect interior and was in need of a full restoration.  A ground-up restoration was performed, and transformed into the beauty you see pictured. 

            Since the restoration was completed in October 2014, the car has made its way around the country, showing at numerous events and taking home numerous awards. Such events include one of the most prestigious shows in the world, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

1923 Detroit -- RA 039.jpg

            One of the first things people notice when the car is on display are the batteries. They’re hard to miss because there are 14 six-volt batteries on board the Detroit; 7 in the front and 7 in the back. A lot of people are surprised to see the batteries, and think it’s some sort of conversion. Sometimes it takes a quite a bit of convincing for people to accept that electric cars have been around for more than 100 years. While we impatiently wait for more electric cars to flood the market, we’ll be happy to bring the 1923 Detroit Electric around the country, and educate people on the wonderful history of these exceptional automobiles.


Ryan Mahoney