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A Tale from Sir Gregory’s Notebook

It was at the breakfast table while absorbing a fortifying dose of Lapsang Souchong that Sir Gregory said “You know, I’ve been considering one of those new electric conveyances, now that they’re coming back into general favor.” “Back into favor,” his companion said quizically while helping himself to another rasher from the board. “Yes, BACK into favor” Sir Gregory barked. His morning grumbliness generally didn’t melt until he’d had at least a full pot of strong tea- he was at best, only two cups into his quota. “In George V’s day, women of the upper classes drove them on social calls when their chauffeurs were off- and milk floats, of course,” Sir Gregory muttered, pouring himself yet more tea.

“That’s fascinating, I thought they were a fairly new thing,” said the companion, spooning into the marmalade. “Hardly!” “Elon Musk, for all the hyperbole, did not invent the electric car.”  “Well, I know he didn’t, but still.” “Not a bit of it, in fact, my great, great uncle Maxwell bought one for aunt Victoria- American of all things, a Detroit.” “Uncle Maxwell was understood to have a fascination with the Colonies, and he’d read that Mrs. Henry Ford drove a Detroit electric.”  

“Go into the library, check the file cabinet under “E” for electric, or was it “D” for Detroit?” “Regardless, there’s a file on it.” The companion stood, placing his linen napkin on the table before proceeding to the library. Some few minutes passed and Sir Gregory bellowed “Where the hell are you, can’t you find the confounded file!” Just then the companion trotted back in holding a folio. “It was under “V” for Victoria,” he said. Sir Gregory’s flush subsided.

The Companion Delved In:

-I shall always remember the Lusitania because aunt Vickie’s Detroit came over in the hold, along with a case of Maryland whisky, for which uncle Maxwell had a taste (must check the cellars to see if some remains.) 

It was well-understood in the early 1900s that private horseless carriages were here to stay, but there was not yet general agreement on whether petrol, steam, or batteries would prove the most practicable means of horse replacement. The electric car was very much a contender- over a century before the present hubbub. 

Even Henry Ford, the Father of the T, thought well enough of the electric car that he bought his wife, Clara, a Detroit Electric. He could’ve provided her any car her heart desired, but that 1914 Model 47 Brougham met her standards and his. 

Detroit Electrics were built by the Anderson Electric Car (nee Carriage) Company, and their inner workings were reckoned by most to be the finest then available. Clara’s car used Edison storage cells of nickel-iron type. These batteries had some shortcomings, but they were tolerant of imprecise charging and could last for years before requiring replacement. 

It was often necessary for owners to have their own charging systems, which usually employed a fearsome, fascinating mercury vapor arc rectifier to turn AC line current into DC. Made of glass and full of mercury, In operation, these rectifiers looked like lightning in a bottle. 

Great aunt Vickie’s Detroit was said to be a near twin of Mrs. Ford’s. But no photos or other documents of merit survived the fire in the attic young cousin Haddam started (I’d liked to have flogged the boy, but that sort of thing just isn’t done). Fortunately, Mrs. Ford’s car survives in the custodianship of the Henry Ford Museum and is well documented. Thus, I have referred to it, images of other Model 47 Broughams and period advertising for most of these notes. 

A Detroit Model 47 Brougham was just about as genteel a mode of transport as can be imagined (as were many other electric cars of the early 20th century). The upholstery was fine cloth and deeply button tufted. Plentiful windows were shaded with silken curtains and the interior was lit with dainty, frosted glass lamps embellished with wheel-cut starbursts. Of course, grab-straps of rich jacquard woven material were provided and Milady would always have a nosegay to hand courtesy of a bud vase attached to the door pillar. And none of this finery was despoiled by the sight of -exhaust- coming out of the horse or having to grind gears or crank start a cantankerous gas engine. Then again, it should be plush, aunt Vickie’s car cost the equivalent of $100,000 US dollars. 

The driver’s couch, for it was the full width of the passenger compartment, faced front, and there was a dainty passenger seat set up vis a vis fashion in the corner of the drawing-room, ahem, passenger compartment. The environment was entirely passenger-focused, the operating controls were discreetly mounted to the side and they were exceedingly simple. A steering tiller, a speed control lever, and a few buttons were all that was needed. The control levers could be swung out of the way for ingress and egress. Foot pedals sprouted from the floor to apply the main brakes on the rear wheels or cut off power. A secondary, parking brake worked on the driveshaft. Instruments were discretely present, by necessity, to show volts, amps, and speed. 

If pedestrians obstructed one’s progress a little trolley bell made it known that they should remove themselves from your path. 

Styling of most electrics was tall and dignified, having much in common with the horsedrawn vehicles that would’ve still been familiar to most people who bought them. The Model 47 Brougham has distinctive, curved glass quarter windows to the front corners, all other windows were of conventional plate glass. The windshield could be opened to admit a cooling breeze- for all its opulence, there was no air conditioning. 

Of course, you weren’t going anywhere in a hurry in one of these carriages, the top speed was, perhaps 25 mph and the battery technology of the time gave a range of 70-80 miles. When their primary role was to delicately transport fashionable ladies on social calls within a few miles of their homes, such performance was more than sufficient. A tall build and soft springs did nothing to encourage fast driving. There is simply no need to carve apexes in a drawing-room, you’re apt to spill the sherry…

The companion spoke up, “tell me, what sort of electric car are you going to buy?” “I’ll let you know as soon as I find one with an interior that doesn’t look like an alien dissection chamber from Area 51.” Just then the butler appeared with more tea.

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