Video: Think electric cars are new? Take a virtual spin in this 1917 Detroit Electric
By Kevin Coughlin
Electric cars feel like relatively new additions to American streets.
But don’t try telling that to Chatham couple Don Davidson and Sarah Stanley.
Their gleaming 1917 Detroit Electric car was the hit of Saturday’s electric vehicle exhibition outside the Presbyterian Parish House in Morristown.
Lightning-fast Tesla Roadsters, suitcase-sized Smart Car EDs and a Zero SR battery-powered motorcycle were among the 40-plus vehicles displayed there for “National Drive Electric Week.”
But it was the World War I- vintage carriage that raised eyebrows among visitors surprised to learn that electric cars vied with gas- and steam (!) driven vehicles for market supremacy a century ago.
Davidson collects all three kinds of antiques.
“I’m a mechanical engineer. I’m curious. I love history. I was fascinated by the reality of 100 years ago. What did people experience when they bought and drove these cars?” he said.
When they bought a Detroit Electric — for about $3,000 in 1917, roughly equivalent to $61,000 today–they got a warm-weather vehicle intended for ladies to drive around town, according to Davidson.
Strong ladies, apparently. The steering tiller — there is no steering wheel — requires some muscle to operate.
Air conditioning is of the natural variety, via a windshield that opens. Heat? Close the windshield and button up!
While today’s motorists must cope with text messages, early 20th-century distractions came in the form of passengers who faced the driver, from a jump seat in front of the windshield.
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Approximately 300,000 electric vehicles are on the road today in the United States, said Michael Thwaite, a Warren resident who drives a $130,000 Tesla Roadster and serves as president of Plug In America,a coalition of enthusiasts.
The biggest obstacle, he said, is a dearth of public charging stations, particularly in the Garden State. Electric vehicles typically have shorter cruise ranges than gas-powered cars.
“Most are between 80- and 100 miles,” said Chris Neff of the Electric Auto Association’s New Jersey chapter.
Sustainable Morristown, a partner in Saturday’s event, is trying to drum up interest for local charging stations. The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer toyed with the idea last year, but balked at the cost.
Tom Moloughney has provided free charging stations for his customers, at Nauna’s in Montclair, since 2009. Subsequently he added a fast-charging station, subsidized by Volkswagen and BMW.
“I’ve gotten dozens of customers I wouldn’t have had,” he said. They find him via a mobile app that lists vehicle charging stations nationwide.
The five-speed Detroit Electric has a range of 60- to 90 miles, with a top speed of 25 mph, Davidson said. It’s powered by a dozen six-volt batteries. They are modern, as are the tires and the re-upholstery. Otherwise, everything is original on this wooden-framed, steel-and-aluminum paneled beauty.
“It’s an absolute ice-breaker,” said Davidson’s wife, Sarah, surrounded by a gaggle of curious onlookers. “Don got me hooked.”
They met 20 years ago on a steam car tour through Maine and New Hampshire. Sarah’s go-to vehicle now is a 1931 Model A Ford pickup truck. Sometimes she parks it at a seniors daycare center; for dementia sufferers, it triggers memories the same way music does, she said.
The couple also owns a steam-powered 1899 Locomobile, Stanley Steamers from 1910 and 1913, and a 1913 Ford Model T. The steamers take a half hour to warm up.
“If you wanted to go somewhere, you needed a horse,” Davidson said.
He bought the Detroit Electric from a South Carolina collector in 2007; while he won’t disclose the price, he acknowledges that antique cars are not for the faint-hearted.
Sarah, a graphic artist and legal assistant, enjoys watching her husband tinker on their motorized menagerie.
“He taught me to appreciate their beautiful, simple design,” she said. “They are beautifully simple. It makes you appreciate them more.”