1917 Detroit Electric

Story and photographs by Tom Strongman

Hybrid gasoline/electric cars are all the rage these days, but alternative-fuel vehicles are almost as old as the motorcar itself. Marshall Miller’s 1917 Detroit Electric is an excellent example.

 It has a “Cinderella coach” aluminum body, curved glass windows and seats that look like they belong in a parlor.

 The Detroit Electric was built from 1907 to 1939 by the Anderson Carriage Co., Anderson Electric Car Co., Detroit Electric Car Co. and the Detroit Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Co. More than 12,300 Detroit Electric cars and 535 trucks were built. Somewhat more than 100 are still in existence.

 Miller’s car sat in the Smoky Mountain Car Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for 40 years until it was sold at auction. Miller bought the car last year in non-running condition. His mechanic, Alan Macmillan, reconnected the wiring and rebuilt the steering, suspension, brakes and wheels. The speed controller and DC electric motor were cleaned and restored as well.

 Sixteen six-volt batteries provide 96 volts of power. Miller, of Kansas City, has made one bow to modernism. He commissioned the construction and installation of a battery charger so that the vehicle can be plugged into a variety of sources to charge the batteries.

 The interior is tall and spacious. A gray cloth bench seat faces forward while two small swiveling seats are mounted near the windshield. Two tillers and a brake pedal operate the car. The large tiller is for steering and the small one operates the electric controller. Top speed is on the order of 35 miles per hour, and the range on a full battery charge is estimated to be 80 miles.

 The ease with which Miller’s electric car glides down the road is uncanny. It’s silent, of course, and stately. Because it has tall windows, no steering wheel and no instrument panel, it feels like a turn-of-the-century drawing room on wheels.