“The train slowed up with midsummer languor at Lake Geneva, and Amory caught sight of his mother waiting in her electric on the gravelled station drive. It was an ancient electric, one of the early types, and painted gray.”
—This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920
The future is electric! Yeah, well, so’s the past.
With Elon Musk’s Tesla Model S the latest high-tech status symbol, Nissan’s LEAF an established e-commuter, and the launch of the new BMW i3 getting a lot of breathlessly positive press, you might assume the electric car was born yesterday.
Oh sure, they’ve been around for a short while, but we’re talking iPod timelines here, right?
Not so — here’s a still-running 100-year-old electric horseless carriage owned by the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA). Crank up the AC/DC and let’s go for a ride.
Mrs. ffrench’s Electric Ferry
Built in 1912 by the Anderson Electric Car Company out of Michigan, this Detroit Electric is a B.C. original. It was ordered by Florence ffrench, the wife of a well-to-do veterinarian in Montreal, and then shipped across the country to Victoria, where it saw regular service until 1962.
For those last thirty years, it was stored in the basement of the ivy-covered Empress Hotel, to be ordered up by Mrs. ffrench at a moment’s notice to pop out for a quick jaunt around the provincial capital. Just to put that in perspective, this thing started out on the roads with Model Ts and was dicing it up with Galaxie 500s by the end.
Costing a colossal-for-the-time $3,200 (equivalent to a half-dozen of those Model Ts), Mrs. ffrench’s runabout originally came with the fancy Edison nickel-steel battery, giving it a range of around 130 km — about the same as a Nissan LEAF.
“In this princely electric automobile you are as safe as in the shelter of your own home.”
Worried about battery pack replacement? The old Edison battery packs have indeed been swapped out here for a modern lead-acid setup, reducing the range to about 80 km. The change happened in the late 1980s – the Edisons only lasted sixty-odd years. Ho-hum.
The bodywork is mostly aluminium, just like, to pick a much-praised example at random, the new Porsche 911. On Mrs. ffrench’s death, the car was bequeathed to the B.C. transport museum and was a featured car at Expo ’86. When the museum folded its tent, the newly-formed VEVA snapped up the car, unwilling to let a piece of Canadian West Coast history get shuffled off to a U.S. showroom.
Somewhat shabby and slightly dented by the years, the Detroit is nonetheless stately in its carriage and perhaps just a teeny bit snooty.
A Handsome Escort
While the Detroit was originally powered by Edison technology, and old Thomas Alva himself once owned one, it has quite a lot in common with the current Tesla. Like the sleek modern conveyance, the top-hat-regal Detroit is a machine for the rich, or at least the upper-middle class.
It’s an ideal conveyance for a gentlewoman, as this particular model boasts a raised velvet roof that’s high enough to accommodate a bonnet-wearing ma’am. A period advertisement claims, “This handsome escort will never fail you, day or night. In this princely electric automobile you are as safe as in the shelter of your own home.” Cads and bounders keep out.
A plaything of the rich, then? Not quite. Like the Tesla and the LEAF, the Detroit is actually a very pragmatic sort of vehicle in many ways. Bruce Stout, VEVA’s president, owns a LEAF because, as he says, “I wasn’t really looking for a hobby: I wanted an appliance.”
When automotive writers talk about appliances, they’re usually using the term as a pejorative before going off on a screed about passion and soul and whatnot, but whether today or a hundred years ago, the electric car is simply a practical way to cover short urban distances in a smooth and energy-efficient manner.
No Finesse Required
Well, I say “smooth.” Turns out a few things have changed in a hundred years’ time, and ride quality is one of them. Clambering aboard into a cabin filled with the scent of leather and horsehair-stuffed cushions, Bruce adjusts his top hat and pulls down the control levers.
Anyone who’s driven a Model T knows that Tin Lizzie needs a bit of finesse at the controls to get up and moving. The Detroit, on the other hand, is about as complicated as a Power Wheels. You simply push forward on a bar to go, lift up and back to reverse, and step on either or both of two floor-mounted pedals to stop.
The car is piloted through the use of a flip-down tiller bar, like the steering oar of a Grecian trireme, and Bruce gently guides it off the showroom floor of a local dealership where it sits between summer car show appearances.
“Looks like we have a little woodwork to do,” he comments as I climb aboard, pointing to a few areas where the Detroit needs a little TLC. Overall, though, the machine seems in fine fettle and capers forward with a brisk leap as the power lever is engaged.
Rounding a blind corner, Bruce presses a red button and an electric buzzer signals our imminent arrival, sounding for all the world like an old-fashioned doorbell.
Top speed of the car, with the current battery set up, is a leisurely 44 km/h. Quite frankly, that’s fast enough for a car with wood-spoked wheels and Classical Age steering. Also, were the car any faster, Bruce would miss out on the chance to EV-angelize, something he apparently never fails to do.
Turning around in the parking lot of a local business, a security guard approaches. We ask about the possibility of taking a few pictures. A manager is summoned. Faces are disapproving, downcast, worried about protocol. You can guess what happens next.
Sure enough, Bruce soon has the woman in charge of the place perched in the jump seat of the Detroit, and off we go to loop around the lot; the car is silent, leaving plenty of room for its driver to proselytize on the advantages of the electric car.
There are many, given Vancouver’s cramped, high-density living and frequently snarled traffic. While the currently limited ranges seem to be a deal-breaker for some folks – another figure who flags us down can’t be convinced that Bruce can use his LEAF as a round-town daily driver – it’s also worth noting that this antique car is still on its original engine, and spent more than a half-century on the original battery pack.
During the winter, the Detroit is tucked away in the museum of a local hydroelectric dam that’s also a hundred years old. Rainwater cascades off the shoulders of the surrounding mountains to be harnessed by the enormous turbines and spun into megawatts that shunt down powerlines to the city, where they light houses, power ovens, and charge up electric cars — the same now as it was a century ago.
Truth be told, the electric car isn’t the future, nor is it really the past: it just is. Whether there are batteries or pistons under the hood, the important thing is that there’s the road beneath your wheels, room for your friends, the sun in the sky and, most importantly, plenty of headroom for one’s bonnet.