Rare Rides: The 1921 Detroit Electric 85A, a Very Early EV

It’s fitting that the first electric vehicle ever featured in the Rare Rides series is today’s two-door Detroit Electric. One of the earliest electric cars, the luxurious Detroit Electric was whirring around cities when many people still used horses.

The Detroit Electric was produced by the Anderson Electric Car Company, previously a carriage builder. The business was founded in 1884 as the Anderson Carriage Company and started building electric cars in 1907. Once electric car sales took off, Anderson renamed itself in 1911.

Anderson’s cars were powered by rechargeable lead-acid batteries, which typically took up all the space in the vehicle’s front and rear compartments. A battery upgrade was offered between 1911 and 1916, and for a considerable $600 upcharge customers could have higher quality Edison nickel-iron batteries instead.

Typical range on a Detroit Electric was 80 miles, with a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Consumers were not concerned with such a low speed, as at the time it was considered adequate for town driving. The low top speed was also probably best because all Detroit Electrics had a hand tiller instead of a wheel. The company steadfastly refused to adopt steering wheels.

At the time, an electric vehicle was sold as a refined luxury experience that was quiet and dependable and did not require vigorous hand-cranking like a fuel-powered automobile. As a result, the Detroit Electric sold primarily to women who didn’t want to crank their car and doctors who didn’t want to risk damaging their hands. Detroit Electric knew their market and advertised directly to both consumer groups. Interiors were usually luxurious and took on a living-room-like appearance since the car has very few mechanical components to intrude upon the cabin. A wide variety of body styles were available and included coupes and touring cars, and even a sporty roadster.

Detroit Electric’s popularity was at its height circa the 1910s when Anderson shifted up to 2,000 examples per year. Sales fell off during the Great Depression, and as internal combustion engines became more reliable, less expensive, and less crude. The Detroit Electric cars stayed the same in appearance through the Thirties, at which point the company started to purchase bodies from Dodge and Willys to have a more modern look.

But even with new bodies, the power and speed of the developing combustion engine made for stiff competition. A switch to commercial sales focus meant ever fewer passenger examples were produced. Eventually, the passenger versions became special order only. In 1939 the company folded, with a production total of around 13,000 electric cars since inception.

Today’s Rare Ride is a charming two-door city car from 1921. It’s filled with heavy car batteries since the OEM batteries have not been available in nearly a century but has been otherwise maintained and restored. Its parlor is decorated in fine materials and upscale green velour. Yours for $69,500.

[Images: Detroit Electric]

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