This car reminds us of an era when electric cars were common on our roads and the petrol car was yet to reign supreme. In the early decades of the twentieth century the Detroit Electric was the most successful of the many electric cars on the market. It led the field in terms of longevity, and its design, based like other early cars on a horsedrawn carriage, stayed constant long after it became unfashionable.
This Detroit Electric brougham was made in 1917 by the Anderson Electric Car Co of Detroit. It was purchased by Sydney solicitor Arthur Allen as a town car and continued to be used by his family for over 30 years until presented to the Museum in 1947.
During the First World War the cost of petrol doubled in Australia and electric cars became so popular that in 1914 Sydney City Council set up a special charging station in Palmer Street, where owners could recharge their vehicles for a reasonable fee. At this time it was expected that the petrol engine would soon become obsolete, but the electric car continued to be hampered by its heavy batteries. The inability to find a cheap and easy-to-produce alternative battery, the limited range of the electric car, and its lower maximum speed, helped the petrol car to become dominant.
The first electric cars were built in the United States in 1891. They were quieter, smoother, easier to drive, and required less maintenance than petrol cars. The Detroit Electric was often preferred by women drivers as it did not have to be started with a starter handle. It was seen as a luxury vehicle for shopping and social visits around town. Its advertising featured groups of unescorted women in furs, feathers and fine clothes going off to a reception, theatre, tea or dance in their Detroit Electric described as "elegant comfort and independent privacy" and "Society's Town Car". Electric cars were perceived as safer than petrol cars and therefore more suitable for women. In 1908 Henry Ford purchased a Model C Coupe Detroit Electric, serial number 1069, for his wife Clara, which had a special baby seat for Edsel. This was the year he began production of his Model T. Ford subsequently bought a Detroit Electric every two years for Clara through to 1914 when he bought two!
Davis, Pedr, "The Australian Dictionary of Motoring", Pedr Davis Pty Ltd, South Hurstville, 2001.
Georgano, N. "The Beaulieu Encyclopaedia of the Automobile", The Stationery Office, London, 2000.
Information on Detroit Electric cars provided by Galen Handy.
Simpson, Margaret, "On the Move: a history of transport in Australia", Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2005
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