1916 Detroit Electric Owner Wonders At New Fuss About Old Idea - Electric Cars

By John O'Dell November 12, 2010

But Even Oldies Can Be improved - How 'Bout Lithium Batteries for Classic Brougham?  Detroit Electric1.jpg

Jack Beatty navigates his 1916 Detroit Electric brougham across a narrow bridge near his home in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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By Ronald Ahrens, Contributor

As the motoring world gets ready to welcome battery-electric cars into the fold, Jack Beatty shakes his head at all the fuss.

The 76-year-old Michigan man has been driving electric since 1981 - and doing it in a car that was new years before he was born.

Beatty is owner of a 1916 Detroit Electric brougham - a car built when Detroit Electric was an American car company instead of a corporate name purchased out of history's trash bin and attached to a Malaysian company that hopes to someday make modern EVs.

Don't let Beatty's red 1916 brougham fool you, though. The plating company manager doesn't have anything against new technologies.

In fact, while showing off the car last spring to employees of Sakti3, an Ann Arbor-based advanced-battery research company, Beatty started toying with the idea of bringing it up to date by replacing its heavy lead-acid batteries with lightweight, state of the art lithium-ion packs.

He figures he could shave about 300 pounds from the batteries the brougham now carries around to power its 84-volt, 6-horsepower electric motor.

"It might be fun with the old and the new to try to combine them and take the older vehicle and not change the controls or anything else like that, but put the lithium batteries in it and see how the car performed." he said. Detroit ElectricBeatty.jpg

For now though, the 1916 brougham rolls silently along on power drawn from 1,076 pounds of 6-volt lead acid batteries - seven in the car's conspicuously snub-nosed front and seven more in its rear.

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Beatty hoists a wire wheel from his latest acquisition, a 1921 Detroit Electric (right), which shares a garage with its older sibling, the collector's 1916 EV.

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Made by the company that produced what one reference source calls "America's most famous and longest-lived electric car," the brougham features a body modeled after the lightweight horse-drawn carriages of the 19th century.

The commodious interior - large because electrics didn't have to accommodate the bulky internal combustion powertrain of a gasoline-powered brougham - helped make the wood-framed car with real glass windows a favorite of women drivers of the era.

Women drivers of the day also preferred the Detroit Electric's ease of operation. Instead of an accelerator, gear shift, brake pedal (and sometimes gear-change pedals) and steering wheel to manage, there were two hand levers - one for steering and another to control the motor's five speed settings and a brake pedal on the floor.

Beatty's brougham is from Detroit Electric's peak year of production in 1916.  It also is probably the entire EV industry's peak year so far. That's when the company, founded in 1907, built 3,000 or so of its total run of about 13,000 cars.

Interest in electrics died soon after because the government's push to expand gasoline refining to meet the demands of World War One made the fuel more plentiful and inexpensive in postwar years, eliminating the electrics' window of opportunity.

The older electric cars that remain have long been an obscure sub-specialty in the collector car world. Beatty knows of 98 Detroit Electrics registered nationally and close to three dozen more in other countries. The Horseless Carriage Club of America lists an electric car registry among its 20 categories of specialization.Detroit ElectricPair.jpg

But with the increase of interest in EVs, owners of those vintage EV's can now bill themselves as prophets ahead of their time.

The cars, however, are still oldies.

To operate the controls of his, Beatty sits to the left in the back seat, the common location of the original EVs' controls because the front bench seat was turned - as in a stagecoach - so all the occupants faced each other.

Beatty grasps the long tiller lever for steering in his right hand. With his left, the motor control lever.

The rear-wheel brakes are actuated by one of the floor pedals. (Typical of the era's cars, there are no front-wheel brakes.) Pulling back on the motor control actuates a friction brake against the motor to provide additional stopping power and there's a second pedal on the floor for the parking brake.

The brougham launches silently except for the sound of the motor controller engaging beneath Beatty's seat. Sitting alongside him, the impression is of being passenger in an Edwardian drawing room improbably going down the road.

"I've had a personal interest with electric things forever," says Beatty. As a boy in Stratford, Connecticut, he used to wire up electrical outlets for his neighbors. He came to Ann Arbor in the 1950s after attending Haverford College and serving with U.S. military occupation forces in Germany.

In 1981, he bought the 1916 brougham, known around Ann Arbor as the Huntington car after Edwin and Nell Burrows Huntington, its owners since the 1920s. A restoration that took from 1999 until 2004 has resulted in numerous awards.

The Huntington is no longer Beatty's only EV - in September he paid $25,000 for his blue '22 Detroit Electric brougham that he hopes to have ready for shows by next spring.  

He has lots of experience with the make, having done much of the restoration work on the 1916 brougham himself.

And he's had plenty of experience with the batteries, as well.

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When he bought the 1916 brougham, it was outfitted with eight massive Gould-Kathanode lead-acid batteries that were manufactured in the 1940s at Gould's works in Depew, N.Y., near Buffalo. The Gould-Kathanode units went into the car in 1944, when wartime gas rationing caused the Huntingtons to begin driving their 28-year-old electric again.

But the batteries were in need of a complete overhaul when Beatty bought the car and, unable to find any way of rebuilding the Kathanode cells, he replaced them with contemporary, deep-discharge, 6-volt batteries of the size typically used in industrial floor-scrubbers.

"Everybody that has these cars is using modern batteries," he says, bringing up his idea of switching to modern lithium-ion battery packs..  

Gregg Lange, president of the HCCA's Electric Car Registry, says Beatty isn't the first owner to think of that.

"There's been a lot of talk, but when push comes to shove, the cost is just ridiculous," Lange says.

Nevertheless, Beatty is enchanted by the idea.

The weight loss from converting to lithium-ion cells, would surely help the brougham, now weighing in at 3,660 pounds,  carry itself uphill with new vigor instead of bogging down. It might increase the top speed beyond the present 25 mph, or extend the car's range beyond 80 miles.

As he's pondered the switch, Beatty has come up with some potential problems.

He's uncertain, for instance, about lithium batteries' discharge profile.

"It seems to me that with lead-acid, the voltage tends to drop in a different profile than the lithium. If you have a (rechargeable) power tool that you use at home, a drill, or anything like that, those things will run like crazy and then, all of a sudden, wham! They tend to drop off extremely fast."

The cost of switching might entail more than just expensive new batteries if a modern battery control computer had to be installed as well to manage such things.

The uncertain lifespan of lithium-ion batteries in low-cycle use also concerns him. "With an antique vehicle, it's not like you're discharging it fully every day, like you would be if you're using a car to commute," he said.

Still, he's undaunted.

Detroit ElectricRearCompartment.jpg

"If the price is not too outrageous, I'd like to do it just to do it. If for no other reason than because I'm interested in that type of thing, It'd be fun."

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Beatty added a plastic cord reel and long charging cord to the 1916 brougham's rear compartment, alongside a rack of seven batteries.

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Depending on their size, a new set of lead-acid batteries runs between $2,000 and $3,000 for the brougham, but he guesses at an outlay of $5,000 to $10,000 for lithium-ion batteries in pre-engineered units. Do-it-yourself battery packs might be cheaper.

But in a DIY situation, wouldn't issues about heat management and runaway reactions within cells be a concern as well?

Beatty mulls  the possibility of collaborating with a battery company as his best alternative - to be sure that the engineering is done correctly, he says.

Since restoration, the brougham has covered about 2,000 miles. Besides giving rides at car shows, Beatty drives his wife Janice to downtown Ann Arbor to shop at the farmers' market or to dine out.

Lately, with the new interest in EVs, the 1916 electric has bee in demand as a prop for various news and documentary programs.

Most have been local, but Beatty recently turned down an invitation from the BBC to appear with his car in new film. They wanted him to get the car to New York himself, he said, and he couldn't afford to make the trip.

He's not afraid of a long drive, though. He says he's looking forward to his horseless carriage club's 2011 tour of Michigan's "Thumb" along Lake Huron.

It would be fun if Nissan of Ford were to step up with a Leaf or Focus EV to escort the vintage electric: The new kids paying homage to their elder while also tantalizing with their lithium-ion batteries.

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