A Modern Buyers Guide to Early Electric Cars

Galen Handy v2.8


Mechanical and body integrity issues are like with all old cars, only simpler. The motors used in these cars were very robust, and are rarely replaced. Most motor troubles come from bad brush and commutator maintenance. The most likely trouble area is the controller. Hesitation between speed positions can cause melting and welding. A handful of controllers have been beautifully rebuilt, and the restoration folk often make several sets of spares, offered to others from time to time.

All antique electrics make excellent parade cars. They don’t stall, overheat, or gas the observers.


Early electrics can be roughly divided into two groups.


     Before 1911:

These were mostly chain-drive cars that were built as lightly as possible to overcome the high weight and low capacity of early batteries. A few had enclosed Coupé type bodies designed with doctors in mind, but most were open runabouts and Victorias. Early makers often built several models on the same platform, and the owner could switch bodies to suit the season. Studebaker, Waverley, and Woods featured removable Coupé tops that fit some of their open models. Most ran with a 28-48-volt battery, to keep it as light as practicable.

          After 1912:

The electrics built after 1912 began to resemble each other, regardless of make. These cars took advantage of efficient single motor, low maintenance, shaft-drive systems, similar to a contemporary engine-in-the-front rear-wheel-drive car. The competition was heated between established makes, and several competent new carmakers decided to sell luxury vehicles to the carriage trade.


The new Nickel-Iron Edison Battery and Exide “Iron Clad” battery, both introduced around 1910, looked like they might revitalize the electric car, just before Kettering came up with a practical electric starter in 1912; eliminating one of the electric’s key advantages. The Edison battery, popular at first, proved too expensive for the modest improvement in storage capacity. Electric pleasure car production peaked between 1915 and 1918. Battery Voltage was standardized at ~84 Volts, which allowed for efficient charging from 110-120 Volt AC with the recently introduced Mercury vapor rectifier, which had significantly higher current capacity than the previous vacuum diodes.

The First World War, and the following deep recession, mortally wounded electric car sales, triggered by adjustment to a peacetime economy and exacerbated by the influenza epidemic, which killed many more healthy young Americans than the war.

The demand for lead, copper, and aluminum for the Second World War finally crushed electric car manufacturing. As automatic transmissions became practical after the war, and cheap gasoline became available, an electric car with a lead battery became obsolete.


Of the cars that remain today:


Baker was arguably the most historically important electric carmaker. They are among the nicest electric cars ever produced. Early use of high-strength steel alloys, and a thorough, well funded, design approach, makes Baker a desirable Marque. Baker made some of the most dependable and efficient pre-1911 cars, and was the equal of later cars.

At least 50 remain.



Some would argue Columbia was more historically important than Baker, but Baker was a leader in car design through two design generations (1900-1915), whereas Columbia was only important in the first. (1896-1907). Columbia was the pioneer and originated the classic small Victoria design as well as some early luxury Broughams.

26 of these cars are known to remain.


    Detroit Electric (Anderson Carriage Co, et al)

Of less historical importance than some makes, as they started later (1907), and were not significant innovators. Detroit Electrics had excellent motors, drivelines, and coachwork. The low speed (800-1,000 rpm vs. 1,800) Elwell-Parker motors, and a speed control design with minimal use of heat-wasting resistance, made them one of the most efficient. Detroit Electric was the most successful brand in terms of production and years in business. The fact that more of these cars remain than explained by the greater production numbers is evidence of their build quality, and being produced in number late enough that many were still fairly new when many electrics were scrapped for copper and lead during the Great War.

 The type A “heavy chassis” cars had a unique weather-tight one-piece aluminum roof and cast aluminum running boards. These cars were made to order.

The type B “light chassis” Detroits are one of the best choices for current regular use, as they are simple and reliable, The standardized type B cars started in late 1916, with the 1917 model 68. Anderson favored using new numbers each model year, so the 75, 78, 90, and 95 are basically the same car, with slight trim variations. The model 97 (introduced in 1926) is any one of those models, which have been modernized by lowering the roof 6”, adding better headlights mounted on the hood, a windshield wiper, crown fenders, and balloon tires.

 Balloon tires and optional “snubbers” made for a smoother ride. They fit under more garage doors, and are relatively plentiful.

Around 160 cars remain.



The other good choice of a classic car for actual use. Milburn’s were designed as a lower cost electric Brougham that would still appeal to the carriage trade. Milburn came to the market in late 1914, and was the last of the commercially successful electric car companies in the Twentieth Century. At their peak (1916-1919), they sold almost as well as Detroit Electric, which cut prices to remain competitive.

At least 56 cars remain.


High class coaches with a unique “magnetic” controller that used actuators (essentially heavy-duty relays). Although they had strong sales in the early teens, only a half dozen of these cars are known to remain today. It was probably hard to find people who knew how to maintain the electromagnetic controller. Some of the later cars had almost seamless aluminum bodies, with no molding.

          Rauch & Lang

As with Anderson/Detroit, R & L was a coachbuilder that decided to motorize. They were successful; building fine coaches; with competent Hertner motors, and worm-gear shaft-drive systems. Considered to have some of the nicest coachwork of the electrics built in number. They look good and run well.

About 63 cars known to remain.



The classic Waverleys (1900-1907) were neat, light, electrics. Robert Hassler and Elmer Sperry (who went on to invent and manufacture critical inertial guidance systems) designed the platforms. The herringbone rear-drive gears were quiet and reliable, but mounting the motor to the rear axle limited its size and power. They were popular; the electric equivalent of a “Curved Dash Olds.” Staff engineer Harold Kennedy redesigned the later (middle period) cars, with a unique transverse driveshaft to reduce the un-sprung weight, although it did add to the cars overall weight.

Around 41 cars are known to remain.


One of the first electric car companies, and one of the last to drop chain drive. Re-badged as “Woods Dual Power” they made hybrids in the late teens, during the last few years of manufacture.

Only a dozen of these cars are known to remain, four are hybrids.


About 100 companies got as far as the prototype stage. Other than ten Studebakers, fewer than a half dozen cars, of makes not listed here, remain today. Only about 70,000 of these 1896-1939 electric cars were made, most of the remaining early examples are in museums.