By P.J. Francis
A very special car that is almost a century old went almost unnoticed by most of the attendees at the July car show at Midway Village Museum in Rockford. One had to be a somewhat keen and knowledgeable car enthusiast to appreciate the uniqueness and historic importance of the 84-volt 1915 Detroit Electric.
“This car goes 110 miles between charges and charges overnight, just like the new ones,” explained owner Dr. Mike Werckle, from Caledonia, Ill. “It just doesn’t go as fast. Its top speed is probably 28 on the flat, and downhill, of course, it’s 40 or 50.”
It is hard to believe that in the early 1900s there were lots of electric cars on the roads of the United States. If low-priced gas had not become available, the internal combustion engine would not have overtaken the silent electric motors.
“(The Detroit) had more power than most gas cars (in 1915),” Werckle said. “Actually, the reason there are electric cars is before 1916, all cars had to be cranked, and people who lived in cold climates, or women, did not wish to crank them.”
Doctors liked the ability of electric cars to just go without any difficult starting rituals.
In fact, one of the downfalls of the electric car was the fact many men felt it was a sign of weakness to be seen driving them. As well as driving, men liked to tinker, improve and personalize their cars. The Detroit makers even styled their electric cars like models fitted with engines.
The Detroit had little chance against Henry Ford’s Model T, which cost considerably less to purchase. Ford showed considerable interest in electric cars and worked with Thomas Edison at one time. He even bought a Detroit for his wife, Clara, to drive. However, it would be quite some time before women driving cars became normal. By then, gas-powered cars were much easier to drive.
“The Detroit’s a wonderful car,” declared Werckle, with obvious enthusiasm. “I tour in it. We go all across country with other electric cars. We call it silently touring.”
He belongs to an electric car club that has about 70 electric car-owning members.
“We suspect there are more electric cars and that not all of them are running,” he said. “At least 15 of us drive them on tour.
“There were 13 different electric car manufacturers,” Werckle added. “Detroit manufactured these cars up through the ’30s.”
From 1911 to 1916, the Detroit Electric purchaser had the option of a more expensive Edison nickel-iron battery instead of the standard lead acid battery. Thomas Edison owned a Detroit Electric car.
“I have many antique cars, and none of them I like as much as this,” Werckle concluded. “I like it because it is kind of unusual.”
From the Sept. 7-13, 2011, issue