By Jim Motavalli
5:15 PM EDT, March 27, 2013
I'm intrigued by the news that Detroit Electric has been restarted, and will be producing two-seat sports cars this summer — in Michigan, of course.
This company has a history, one that the new owner, former Lotus executive Albert Lam, will hopefully add to with a new chapter. Detroit Electric, in its first incarnation, produced almost 13,000 battery electrics. At the high water mark, 1,000 to 2,000 cars were sold per year.
A Detroit Electric could go 80 miles before needing to be plugged in, which is like many of the cars of today. But top speed was only 20 mph, and we've bettered that. In testing, a Detroit Electric managed 211.3 miles on a single charge. Then and now, electrics were expensive. A 1914 Detroit Electric went for $2,650, a fortune then (the Model T Ford was $600). If you wanted Edison's fancy nickel-iron batteries, the price was over $3,200.
Detroit Electrics were considered women's cars, because they were quiet and crank-free, with interiors like family parlors. Despite her husband's company, Clara Ford drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham into the 1930s. Helen Joy, who was married to the president of Packard, had a 1915 model. Mamie Eisenhower drove a Detroit Electric.
But it didn't last — gas cars got better. The company was on death's door when the stock market crashed in 1929, but amazingly it soldiered on. A.O. Dunk bought the company and continued to produce special-order cars for die-hard customers. The last one was shipped in February of 1939.
"Electric cars are nothing new; they've been around for quite a while," says Jay Leno, who often drives his 1909 Baker Electric (though his Chevrolet Volt gets lots of exercise, too).
The new Detroit Electric was reborn in 2008, but so far we've seen the car only in silhouette. That changes in April, when a prototype will be shown in the motor city, and then again at the Shanghai auto show. Lam says he plans to employ 180 and produce 2,500 cars a year, beginning at the end of 2014.
In photos, the Detroit Electric looks very Lotus-like, and a ringer for the Tesla Roadster. According to Fox, "Many industry analysts expect that the car will be built on a modified version of a Lotus chassis fitted with a battery-powered drive train, similar to how the Tesla Roadster was produced." The company said it will unveil in Shanghai a "major partnership with a global carmaker." It could be Proton of Malaysia, owner of Lotus.
Let's face it, this could be just another dead-end supercar project. The ground is littered with them, though not that many have batteries under the hood. But the name Detroit Electric is a real attention-grabber. News of the new car will be posted at http://www.detroit-electric.com, but there's not much there right now.
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