Skip to main content

Two electric cars sit atop a century-old hydroelectric dam, separated by three feet and 104 years. One is a Tesla Model X, the long-awaited crossover from the forward-looking California-based company; the other a less-well-known Detroit Electric, which by virtue of its high roof also rates as a crossover. Both operate soundlessly. Both are surprisingly quick. The electric vehicle isn’t just the future, it’s the past, too.

Photos by Brendan McAleer

A persistent misconception about the EV is that it’s an experimental technology waiting for battery capability to keep up. However, the Detroit represents a commercial success. Like the Model X, it was a luxury purchase: at a time when the average car was a rattly, smelly, hard-to-start machine, the Detroit was quick, clean and comfortable. It’s old enough to have tiller steering, but is actually easier to manoeuvre for photos than the Model X is.

Having driven both the Detroit and a contemporary Model T, the antique electric requires far less skill. In a Model T, with its steering-wheel-mounted throttle and spark advance levers, changing gears requires whipping your arms and legs around as if you were a naval ensign semaphoring whilst simultaneously tap-dancing in Morse code.

In the Detroit, you just flip down the tiller-steering bar and glide off down the street. The ease of use and the reliability meant that early electrics were popular with doctors and veterinarians, people who had to get up in the middle of the night and didn’t want to risk breaking a wrist trying to crank-start a car. It was also popular with the well-heeled: Inventor Thomas Edison owned one, but tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. had two.

This model’s raised roof is intended for – don’t laugh – the tall hat a fine lady might wear. The idea was that an elegant woman could drive herself around instead of being beholden to a ch

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.