- 15-hp DC electric motor
- Mechanical speed controller
- Rear-wheel mechanical brakes
- Semi-elliptic springs
- Formerly part of Harrah’s Collection
|Vehicle:||1931 Detroit Electric Model 99 Coupe|
|Number Produced:||About 13,000|
|Original List Price:||$2,000–$4,000|
|Tune Up Cost:||N/A|
|Chassis Number Location:||N/A|
|Engine Number Location:||Plate on the motor body|
|Alternatives:||1899–1914 Baker Electric, 1909–16 Broc Electric, 1927–31 Ford Model A|
This car, Lot 456, sold for $67,200, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Tupelo Automobile Museum Auction in Tupelo, MS, on April 27, 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t clear that gasoline would fuel the 20th century, but before World War I, petroleum was just one of many fuels available for automobiles.
Even as late as 1925, Henry Ford was unconvinced about gasoline. He said, “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust, almost anything.”
While Ford was thinking about ethanol, others were thinking about electricity.
What is a Detroit Electric?
In 1907, the Detroit-based Anderson Carriage Company chose electricity as its energy source when they built their first car.
Like most Brass Era vehicles, the Detroit Electric closely resembled the horse-drawn carriage it replaced. A typical early Detroit Electric seated three or four passengers facing each other in two rows, carriage-style.
The Detroit Electric was usually powered by 14 6-volt lead-acid wet-cell batteries mounted under hoods at the front and rear of the car. The batteries were wired in series, offering a total of 84 volts to the electric motor.
“It’s my favorite car,” says Portland auto enthusiast Monte Shelton, who owns a 1917 Detroit Electric Model 64 Brougham. “I drive it all the time. It’ll do about 25 to 28 miles per hour, so I don’t take it on busy streets.”
While the Detroit Electric claimed up to 80 miles of range on a full charge, Shelton finds that he gets 50 to 60 miles. He uses antique equipment to keep the car topped up. “I have a 1911 Westinghouse battery charger that’s 220 volt,” Shelton says. “I have to replace the batteries in the car about every six or seven years.”
In its day, the Detroit Electric was a popular choice for city dwellers and women who did not care to deal with crank starters and gasoline. Clara Ford owned several Detroit Electrics rather than drive her husband’s product, and General Dwight Eisenhower purchased a Detroit Electric for his wife, Mamie, to drive.
A long decline
At the peak of popularity, Detroit Electric sold up to 4,500 automobiles per year in the pre-war era. For a time, it appeared as though there might be a permanent place for electric cars on America’s new roads. As we know, that’s not how it played out. Steam-, ethanol- and electric-powered cars all lost favor as more and more drivers chose gasoline in the 1920s.
The Detroit Electric Car Company was an early victim of the Great Depression, going into receivership in 1929. The company was purchased and continued making a few cars each year in the 1930s, with the last Detroit Electric built in 1939. In total, about 13,000 Detroit Electric cars were made.
The only known example
The subject sale is a 1931 Detroit Electric Model 99 4-passenger coupe. The auction listing states that it is the sole surviving example of a Model 99.
By the time this car was made, the Detroit Electric had adopted a conventional layout and look. In fact, this Model 99 would be hard to tell from any other car of its time unless you looked under the hood. It even has a steering wheel, where earlier Detroit Electrics used a tiller arrangement.
Like many cars of the day, the Model 99 has mechanical brakes on the rear wheels only. However, the Detroit Electric has a secret braking technique not available to other cars. “It’s got a rheostat, so if you think it’s not stopping fast enough, you can throw it into reverse,” Shelton advises.
This particular Detroit Electric is a preservation example, and unless a bunch more turn up, should probably be kept more or less in its current condition. However, the photos show the car is currently juiced by seven 12-volt batteries that look like a selection from the dumpster behind an O’Reilly store. It might be nice to replace those with something more original. Vintage-looking 6-volt batteries are available on the aftermarket.
There aren’t a lot of sales to help establish a market value on a Detroit Electric. The last recorded auction sale took place in 2016. That well-restored 1920 Model 82 Brougham sold for $66,000 (ACC# 6804042), and a 2012 sale of a restored 1918 Model 75 Brougham went for $73,809 (ACC# 209197). The price of this Model 99 was probably depressed due to its unroadworthy status, even if it is the last surviving example.
As electric cars return to widespread public acceptance, antiques such as the Detroit Electric will also regain some cachet. For the era in which they were built, these cars made effective — even impressive — use of technology.
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)