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1912 Detroit Electric car. (John Stonier for The Globe and Mail/John Stonier for The Globe and Mail)
1912 Detroit Electric car. (John Stonier for The Globe and Mail/John Stonier for The Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

100-year-old electric car offers trip back in time Add to ...

After some verbal instruction, it was time for Cam Rawlinson to take the car for a spin. He’d been looking forward to getting behind the levers.

A 1912 Detroit Electric is the pride of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, custodians of a vintage vehicle on display in a museum. The car boasts five speeds, the top-most capable of about 38 kilometres an hour.

Downhill.

With a tailwind.

The club requires operators to undergo three days of training before being permitted to handle the tillers.

“There’s no steering wheel, so everything’s done by stick,” he said.

The left hand handles speed, the right steering.

“One stick is for the transmission – sorry, not a transmission, a contactor set. A large, five-position switch. With your other hand, you steer the vehicle. To steer to the right, you pull it toward your stomach.”

The car lacks a horn, but boasts a bell.

“When you first engage it into gear, the bell rings,” he said. “Kind of a dingle.”

He tootled around a parking lot in Mission, where the car is usually on display inside BC Hydro’s old powerhouse at the Stave Falls visitors centre. He even managed to coax it into its top gear to conquer an incline.

“Runs well,” he said afterward.

Mr. Rawlinson, an electric technologist from Victoria, seeks to qualify to pilot the old electric vehicle so it can return to the capital city this summer. He wants the 100-year-old electric car to be featured in the city’s sesquicentennial celebrations on Aug. 2.

The car is transported by trailer and requires a support crew to keep it running. He is now seeking sponsors to help defray the cost.

The vehicle was manufactured by the Anderson Electric Car Co. of Detroit. Described as a two-passenger coupe with a third-person seat, the carriage is made of rust-proof sheet aluminum on a steel and wooden chassis. It is painted blue. The interior includes a satin lining on the roof and blue leather seating.

For 75 years, the car ran on nickel-iron cells developed by Thomas Edison, but these were replaced in the 1980s after the Bakelite casing began leaking. The 96-volt vehicle is now powered by 16 lead-acid batteries. The motor has never needed servicing.

The Detroit Electric was marketed as “society’s town car” and “the cosmopolitan car.” In an age when gasoline-powered vehicles needed to be hand-cranked to start, the electric became popular among women. (In Donald Duck comic books, Grandma Duck drives a Detroit Electric.) Its reliability also made it popular with doctors.

This particular car was brought to Victoria in 1920 by Cecil French, a British-born veterinarian who had purchased it eight years earlier in Washington, D.C. Dr. French had been a brilliant, prize-winning scholar at McGill University. He began a practice in the American capital, where he treated Teddy Roosevelt’s dogs.

He made a fortune selling pet medicines using the archaic spelling of his family name. The ffrench Remedy Company offered dog medicines for worms and fleas in capsule form, making it less messy to treat a pet. (The historian Terry Reksten noted one of the veterinarian’s powdery potions came with a certificate declaring the pet to be a member of “Dr. ffrench’s flea free fraternity.”) The vet was also a noted naturalist, travelling to Canada’s High Arctic and to the jungles of Africa to seek wild animals for American zoos. On one expedition, he had an audience with Menelik II, emperor of Abyssinia.

Six feet tall with blue eyes and brown hair, he was 45 when he joined the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps as a captain in 1917. (The late decision to enlist came after his son, a pilot, survived a crash behind enemy lines and had been taken prisoner.)

In Victoria, Dr. French opened a short-lived boating company before moving his animal medicine business to the city in 1927.

He lived in the Empress Hotel with his wife, Florence. Their car was kept charged in the hotel’s basement, delivered to the front entrance upon request.

After the veterinarian died in 1951, his widow continued to live in their room at the hotel, where she became known as the “Empress dowager.” She died in 1962, her 42-year residency the longest in the hotel’s history.

The car, once a familiar sight on downtown streets, where she preferred it maintain a steady 10 kilometre-an-hour pace, eventually disappeared from view. It was on display at Expo 86 in Vancouver before becoming part of the holdings of the B.C. Transportation Museum in Surrey, which closed its doors in 1993.

The Detroit Electric’s caretakers say it has a range of about 90 kilometres before needing to be recharged. That’s pretty good for a 100-year-old vehicle. A spin in the quiet, reliable car is a trip back to the future.



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