Electric Car No Newcomer

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Detroit Electric Car Co. car.

Hybrids and electric cars are all the rage today, but electrics are nothing new.

They were quite popular at the turn of the 20th century, especially among ladies, who were then thought to be too delicate to crank an internal combustion engine (no self-starters in those days). Even Mrs. Henry Ford was said to drive a Detroit Electric car that was powered by batteries made by her husband’s friend Thomas Edison (who also drove a Detroit Electric, of course).

Mrs. Hamilton Fish, a wealthy New Yorker, bought an electric car of unknown make. The salesman who delivered the thing showed her how to work the single power lever; push forward to go, pull back to back up, and lift up to stop. Mrs. Fish sallied forth on her maiden voyage and did all right … for a while.

Circa-1920 Detroit Electric Car Co. brochure. (Click the image to enlarge it.)

Electric cars are quiet, not a good thing for pedestrians accustomed to listening for the clatter of horses’ hooves. A man stepped off the curb in front of Mrs. Fish, who panicked and shoved the lever forward, knocking the poor guy to the ground. As he lay there dazed, the good lady jerked the lever to the rear, and hit him again. Still trying to find “stop,” Mrs. Fish pushed forward and struck the poor soul a third time.

The hapless victim managed to scramble to his feet and limp down the street (apparently no lawsuits in those days either). Mrs. Fish finally got the contraption stopped, got out and stalked haughtily away, abandoning her new car forever.

Mrs. Fish was one of only a few, however, who abandoned the motor car. Around 1916, leading American bankers and economists were predicting the imminent burst of the automobile bubble due to market saturation. Someone asked Billy Durant, then the flamboyant head of General Motors, when Americans would stop buying new cars. Durant replied confidently, “When they stop making babies!”

Durant was right. Even though we read every day about how GM and Chrysler are struggling and are on the verge of bankruptcy, Americans still love their cars, although today they probably buy more motor vehicles than they make babies.

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