Curbside Classic: 1917 Detroit Electric Brougham – Charged Up For Another Century

(first posted 11/11/2011)   What car from 1917 would you buy to keep for a hundred years? Two hundred?

Monte Shelton, Portland race driver (Can Am, F5000, IMSA Camel GT, and Trans Am, he’s raced the Daytona 24-hour 11 times) and longtime Jaguar dealer, regularly drives this 1917 Detroit Electric Model 64 Brougham.

One spring afternoon Lily and I were walking the dogs, and parked there under a shady tree were Monte and his wife Susanne, just watching the world go by in their elegant sitting room on wheels. He generously took us for a little spin around the neighborhood. The quiet and smoothness of this 94 year old car is uncanny. It felt strangely futuristic.

A brougham was a light, four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. It had an enclosed body with two doors, like the rear section of a coach; it sat two, sometimes with an extra pair of fold-away seats in the front corners. As you can see in this ad, the Detroit Electric Model 64 is a proper Brougham. Two sit in the forward-facing seat, driver on the left side, while a third faces them in a corner seat. This is a whole other way for a car to be, a path not taken.

Electrics were expensive but reliable, clean and easy for anyone to drive, when crank starters were breaking arms. Popular among wealthy women, like the ladies in the ad, and with doctors and other professionals needing dependable transportation. Even Henry Ford’s wife drove a Detroit Electric for years.

My crude interior photo shows the driver’s view forward, tiller at hand. Down there between the front seats is the instrumentation, voltmeter and ammeter. A spacious, airy interior with excellent vision in all directions. Those corners have the first curved glass in a production automobile.

Here’s a proper photo of another car. The steering and drive tillers tilt up for easy access and down for driving. There’s a small pedal on the floor for the brakes. Only eight distinct speeds are available, from a drum with contacts that switch battery taps and motor windings. No electronic controls in 1917.

The drive train couldn’t be simpler. A brushed DC motor is mounted under the floor, just ahead of the differential and rear axle. No transmission is necessary. Electric motors have full torque from zero on up, that’s why locomotives use them.

An 84 volt pack runs the Model 62, seven batteries front and seven rear. Here’s this car at a show, its modern lead-acid batteries being charged by the original GE charger that’s normally in Monte’s garage. Besides batteries, tires, motor brushes and contact cleaning, there’s nothing to wear out on this car. Monte did give the car a full restoration of interior and finish, nearly a century after it was built.

Thomas Edison put a major effort into better batteries. Here he is with a 1914  Model 47, fitted out with his nickel-iron batteries, available exclusively in Detroit Electrics. Nickel-iron batteries are lighter and charge faster than lead-acid, but they were much more expensive, and didn’t work so well in cold weather.

The Detroit Electric’s top speed is about 30, and it’ll go 60 to 80 miles on a charge. Monte drives it around the city, down to his dealership, and to the occasional public event. It’s a real car, easily driven and easily maintained, 94 years after it was new. It’s surely good for another 94 years, and fuel will never be a problem.

Bonus Extra: Curbside Classic Book Review

Not only did Monte Shelton give me a ride in his electric car, he lent me a sharp new mystery thriller, The Detroit Electric Scheme, by D. E. Johnson. Fiction for sure, based on the real D-E and real people, in early-1900’s Detroit when it was a wild boom town. The son of Detroit Electric’s owner finds his ex-girlfriend’s new fiance freshly murdered in the factory’s hydraulic roof press, and he’s been framed for the crime. He drops out of sight, and with help from his buddy Edsel Ford, just back from college, they try to find the real killer. We also get a good idea of life in the early car business, their battle with arch-rival Baker for the electric car range record, and a visit to the 1912 Detroit Auto Show, where Kettering demonstrates the first electric starter in a Cadillac.

It was a fun read and I recommend it to all CCers. Thanks, Monte!