Electric Cars

It's Not a New Idea

John Gunnell - June 20, 2014 08:29 AM


Later 1929 Detroit Electric has a lower roof.

Courtesy of John Gunnell

It’s like driving a phone booth!

Courtesy of John Gunnell

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      Between its launch on Sept 3, 1907 and its demise on Feb. 23, 1939, the Detroit Electric Vehicle Co. made 12,400 vehicles, but only around 26 of them were made in 1929. That’s the year that David Lefeber’s Model 98FD Brougham was manufactured.  And things got even worse a few years later with just 15 cars being turned out during the last six years of the operation.
      Lefeber’s car came from the Paul Stern Collection. The original batteries, housed in wooden cases, came with the car, as did the factory battery charger. Since the ancient batteries were leaking acid, Lefeber replaced them with modern deep-cycle batteries so he could add a few miles to the 7,400 on the odometer.
      In the early days of automotive history, there was much debate over what type of propulsion system - electric, steam or gas - was best. There were 62 manufacturers of electric vehicles in business in the United States between 1893 and 1957. At one point, 40 percent of American cars were steamers, 38 percent were electrics and only 22 percent were gasoline powered. By 1912, over 34,000 electric cars were registered. They were popular with women drivers because they were quiet and easy to start and operate, but they were expensive and most sales were made to well-to-do customers.
      Lefeber discovered that the factory records for Detroit Electric models still existed in California. The documents told him that his car was one of the last three or four shipped by the original owners of the company, which was then sold to a firm named Dunk. The new owners produced electric cars under the Detroit name for 10 more years. Only three Model 98s were made in 1929. Dave’s is the only one known to exist today.
      Making the car even more eclectic is the fact that it was originally built as a 1916 Model 66. Most later cars were constructed on earlier chassis that had originally been built between 1914 and 1916. Dave’s was retro-fitted with a more modern six-inch lower body and a new interior. It was then sold as a new Model 98FD. The “FD” stood for forward drive, which indicated that the controls were at the front seat. Other cars could be set up as rear drive models (driven from the rear seat) or Duplex models (that could be driven from either the front or rear seat positions).
      The electric motor in Dave’s five-passenger car is an 84-volt four-pole DC motor with a five-speed controller that varies the field and voltage, along with the starting resistor, for first speed. There is no transmission. The motor is below the center of the car and is connected directly to the rear end. Cruising speed in the high efficiency fourth speed is 18 mph and fifth speed is about 21 mph. There is a button on the floor that opens the field on the motor for passing.