1912 Detroit Electric Car

Photo:  JStonier

Background Information:  History and More

VEVA owns this 1912 Detroit Electric car that was manufactured by the Anderson Electric Car Company in Detroit. It was purchased new in 1912 at a cost that exceeded the price of a respectable urban house of the day. It was owned by Dr. Cecil and Florence French, who lived at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. The couple moved to Victoria from Washington DC in 1920. Cecil was a respected veterinarian and even looked after Teddy Roosevelts dogs while in living in Washington. The car was kept charged in the Empress Hotel's garage and was delivered to the hotel entrance whenever they phoned for the car. It was driven regularly until the 1950's and was a featured historic car at Vancouver's Expo 86.

The front and rear compartments were filled with the optional nickel-iron batteries which gave it a range of close to 100 miles. The still fully-operational batteries finally had to be replaced in 1993 due to the steel cases starting to leak.

Today, the car is owned and maintained by the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association and is a permanent feature exhibit at the BC Hydro Powerhouse at Stave Falls museum near Mission. Coincidentally, that historic 55 megawatt powerhouse was also built in 1912 and only recently replaced by a 90 megawatt hydro plant.

Originally there were 64 nickel iron Edison cells arrange two 40 volt battery packs. The advertised range was 100 km to 130 km, an exceptional range for any vehicle of that era. 

A tiller operates the steering instead of a wheel. Speed is controlled by a lever with the left hand. There are two brake pedals for redundancy and to increase braking effectiveness. There are no brakes on the front wheels, only on the rear wheels. As various speeds are selected, a rotary switch style controller places two 40 volt battery banks in parallel or in series and also selects various windings on the motor. For starting off and low-speed operation there is a large power resistor in series to provide gentle, lurch-free movement.

The motor has received minimal service and closely resembles elevator motors of the day, many of which are still in daily operation. In place of a horn, there is an electrically operated bell activated by a button on the end of the speed control lever. The wheels are wooden-spoked. There is seating for 3 people. The car body is made from wood and aluminum with a steel chassis.

The factory records tell us the production date was October 9, 1912.  The faux radiator grille emulates the competition's radiators required for internal combustion engines. The model is a 31, type 13B, two-passenger coupe with a third person seat. Interestingly, the standard colours for this vehicle were blue, Brewster Green, and maroon - with other colours extra.  The original colour of VEVA's car was blue but it has been painted black at some point in history.

 A 1936 letter from the Thomas Edison Battery Company to Dr. French acknowledges the longevity of the car's nickel-iron based Edison cells. 

The Anderson Electric Car Company made its leading brand Detroit electric cars with the finest materials available at the time.  All aluminum body with oak framed wooden window frames.  The window glass was flawless, including the curved pieces on either side of the cabin.

Above:  Original running board steps, embossed with The Detroit Electric logo.

Left:  2020 reproduction of the original wheel caps, built by VEVA's Detroit Committee.

Not Shown:  A complete reproduction set of the original Thomas Edison Nickle Iron batteries was completed in 2020.

Restoration continues with the cabin interior, while the exterior will remain in original condition to respect the originality of this ambassador of the modern electric car era.

Restoration Fund

VEVA funds the annual maintenance and operations costs to enable our electric car "Ambassador" to be experienced by the public at events and parades and static displays.  We have maintained the car in original condition as much as possible, and given its long 109 year history, it is still pretty well as it was.  However, the car has its limits. Yes the original Thomas Edison nickel iron batteries only lasted 80 years!

After 30 years with conventional lead acid batteries in 2020 our Detroit was fitted with a replica set of nickel iron batteries. This project, funded by a generous donor,  commenced in 2018 includes maple wood battery boxes carefully crafted to the original factory specifications. 

The original speed controller, an intricately crafted switching mechanism with a rotating drum was rebuilt in 2017-2018.

The exquisite interior has been partially restored.  But there are many more improvements that can, and must be done to the car.  Body and frame off work requires a much larger commitment to find the artisans and craftspersons required, and most of these skills are becoming lost to time.

View details of the restorations that have been done:

Battery Replacement:  Upload PDF

Signalling Bell Repair:  Upload PDF

Electric Controller Rebuild:  Upload PDF

Radiator Repair:  Upload PDF

Spring Repair:  Upload PDF

 Please help us in our work to maintain this well loved piece of BC history. 

If you are interested in assisting this heritage project with skills or with funding, please contact us.

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