NotesThis Detroit Electric car is one of a number owned by Sydney solicitor Arthur Wigram Allen (1862-1941) from 1917 as 'town cars'. Allen was a partner in the well-known firm of Allen, Allen & Hemsley of Wigram House, 19 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. In 1917 the horse-drawn vehicle manufacturers Angus & Son, of 165 & 167 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, advertised that they were agents for the Detroit Electric car and Allen may have ordered his cars from them. One of their advertisements from 1917 said "The Coming Car is Electric. The Best Electric Car is the Detroit. In the nature of things petrol must become scarce and dear. Every day electricity becomes more plentiful and cheaper. Electric cars are Cheaper to Operate, More Durable, Easier to Drive, More Comfortable to Travel in; and, above all, SAFER."
Arthur Allen lived at "Merioola", a mansion in Edgecliff Road, Edgecliff, in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and purchased his first Detroit Electric in about 1917. During the First World War petrol was in short supply and an electric car appeared to be the family's answer for short trips. The range of travel for one charge of the battery was at least 40 miles (64 km), a round trip from the Allen's Edgecliff home to a holiday house, "Moombara" on the Port Hacking River in Sydney's southern suburbs. Arthur Allen had never driven a petrol car but quickly mastered the electric one. His daughters, Joyce and Margaret, both in their twenties, also learnt to drive it. At this time the self starter on petrol cars was still unreliable and swinging the external starter handles was both dangerous and heavy work. The electric car had the advantage of having no starting problems and both passengers and driver were protected from the weather behind the large glass windows, which gave excellent visibility. In those days the petrol car was either an open tourer or a closed limousine with the driver sitting exposed to the elements. Another advantage of the Detroit was that the doors could be locked, so coats and parcels could be left in safety.
The Allens liked their electric car so much that they bought a second and then a third one. For the privileged Allen girls this meant freedom and independence, unusual at the time, to attend parties and dances without the need for parents or chauffeurs collecting them long before they wanted to go home. So Margaret Allen would fill the car with friends and drive them all home. She recalls in her book "I Can Hear the Horses" that the control lever was pushed forward through five notches. On number 1, the wheels just moved, and on number 5 it was full speed ahead, or about 30 mph (48.3 kph) on level ground. The car slowed considerably on hills, but, once over the top, the lever was pulled back and the very heavy car free-wheeled downhill at a tremendous pace. "The power in the batteries lasted for about 40 miles, so nearly every night the car was plugged into a charger. This was a terrifying machine, and I never lost my fear of it. One stood on a rubber mat, and twiddled two knobs on the switch board. At the back of this was a large glass valve or tube, bigger than a football and with an alarming hiss, this sprang to life and was filled with a dancing blue light. The car remained on charge all night, and was ready for the road in the morning."
Arthur Allen eventually owned five or six Detroit Electric cars. His friends who had bought them during the war sold them to him when petrol cars improved, so he had a couple kept for spare parts. New batteries became hard to get, and soon Arthur Allen and his brother Reggie were the only people who drove them. Arthur Allen became a familiar figure on Sydney streets, sitting in the traffic among the "modern" cars. He drove it every day until his death in 1941. With petrol again in short supply during the Second World War, the last of the Detroit Electrics was driven by Arthur's son, Arthur Denis Wigram Allen (1894-1967), known as Denis. He was also a solicitor in the family firm, then located in Martin Place, and drove the car to work in the city. In 1947 he presented it to the Museum and according to his sister, Margaret, drove the car into the Museum himself whereupon the floorboards apparenlty broke under its weight.
Gifford, Margaret, "I Can Hear the Horses", Methuen-Haynes, North Ryde, NSW, 1983, pp.38-40.