Flashback: Electric Cars, Electric City, Electric People

The question I most often get asked at Q & A sessions is why I chose the early electric car industry as the backdrop for my historical mystery The Detroit Electric Scheme. I spent three months researching Detroit and the business prior to beginning the novel, and every day I got more and more excited about the prospects. I wanted to write a good mystery, but I like historicals because they also give me the opportunity to learn about something interesting. I found the early electric car industry, the city of Detroit in 1910, and the historical characters in the city at the time to be fascinating. Here are a few of the facts I discovered:


The Business


In 1910 there were forty-six electric car manufacturers in the United States. The most successful was Detroit Electric. Originally a carriage and wagon manufacturer known as the Anderson Carriage Company, the business was founded in 1884 in Port Huron, Michigan. William Anderson moved the company to Detroit in 1895 to increase the size of its market. He built and sold his first automobile in 1907. In 1910 Detroit Electric became the leading electric car manufacturer in the United States and flourished through World War I. After that, the company faded along with the rest of the industry. Sales dwindled through the twenties to a handful of cars each year. The stock market crash of 1929 put Detroit Electric into bankruptcy, but investors purchased the company and hung on by a thread until the business finally closed its doors for good in 1942.

Electric cars appealed primarily to women. A reliable “self-starter” for gasoline engines wasn’t developed until 1911, so starting a car required cranking the manual starter. It wasn’t that women were incapable of doing it; it was just that the procedure was so darned unladylike. A woman driving any automobile raised more than a few eyebrows. To be out in front of the car cranking away was unthinkable to all but the most adventurous women of the day.

Detroit Electrics were driven by lady Rockefellers, DuPonts, Scripps, Kresges, and Steinways, not to mention the wives of auto manufacturers like Ford, Studebaker, Leland, and Stutz . . . which was precisely the problem. Rich women drove electrics at a time that the model for a man’s behavior was Teddy Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” A gasoline automobile meant a manly crank of the starter, the wind in your hair, and touring wild and free in the countryside. An electric car meant tea with the rest of the genteel ladies.

The other primary issues with electrics were the same ones we have today. They were city cars. Many rural areas didn’t even have electrical service in 1910, and those that did were seldom equipped to charge a car, so it was easy to get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Because of the batteries, electrics were also expensive and heavy. Lead-acid batteries (still used in cars today) were the standard until Thomas Edison perfected a much-ballyhooed nickel-steel battery in 1910. It doubled the effective range of electrics, taking them from an average of about 50 miles on a charge to 100. It also raised the price of a 1911 Detroit Electric by $600, nearly as much as the purchase price of some cars. The new batteries were impressive. In December 1910, Baker Electric set a new mileage record of 241 miles on a single charge of Edison batteries.

Two-hundred-forty-one miles. On a single charge. What kind of mileage do electric cars get these days? Fifty to eighty. Granted, we’re not talking the same kind of load. Cars were generally driven at ten to fifteen miles per hour, and of course didn’t have all the sophisticated electronics of cars today. But still. Doesn’t it make you wonder what happened to the advancement of battery technology? I was hoping to find evidence of a sexy conspiracy like a tryst between Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, but no such luck. It appears that improving the efficiency of batteries is more problematic than it seems.

For the 1911 model year, Detroit Electric managed to get the price of their macho-sounding Underslung Roadster down to $2,000. It was a very racy-looking car, long and low, definitely a man’s design. But even with standard lead-acid batteries, it still cost about $1,000 more than most roadsters, and men risked being judged a “Nancy” for driving an electric. It was a failure.

The invention of the self-starter in early 1911 was the tipping point for electric cars. The industry began its decline as the gasoline automobile business was just beginning to soar.


The City


The city of Detroit, already know as the “Paris of the West,” soared as well. Growth was incredible as manufacturing industries expanded, and Detroit became a Mecca for immigrants both from abroad and from other parts of the U.S. In fact, only about ten percent of the 465,000 Detroit residents in 1910 were born in the State of Michigan. Ethnic enclaves sprang up everywhere, and construction was a constant fact of life. In this environment, many industries prospered. Detroit was the country’s leading manufacturer of stoves—the primary heat source for most households—as well as one of the leaders for such diverse industries as cigars and train-cars.

And the automobile business was just beginning to heat up.

More than 200 car manufacturers spanned the United States, but Detroit was becoming the hub of the business. Of the approximately 200,000 cars built in the U.S. in 1910, 114,000 were built in Detroit—a 250% increase from 1909. Many factors contributed to this, but one of the biggest was the Employers Association of Detroit. The EAD controlled labor for its participating companies, which included virtually all area industries. Unions that were part of the AFL were making huge inroads at the time—in other places. The EAD did what was necessary to keep unions out of Detroit companies, and by doing so kept wages down.

When a member company suspected that a union organizer had infiltrated their ranks, the EAD would often send in one of its people as a “new employee” to root out the threat. The troublemakers were immediately fired. When that wasn’t enough, the EAD responded with fists and clubs. At times the business required an even rougher hand, and members of organized crime would be brought in to perform the dirty work. The EAD maintained Detroit’s reputation as an “open city,” which brought in even more manufacturers.

And then there was Detroit’s “Paradise Valley,” a paradise of saloons, brothels, sex shows, con men, pickpockets, and cutthroats. The most infamous of the businesses was the Bucket, a saloon so renowned for murder and mayhem that the Detroit newspapers called it “The Bucket of Blood.”

Detroit was a city with incredible vitality and a very nasty underbelly.

What could be more perfect?


The Players


This environment, not surprisingly, gave me a wealth of characters to work with—emphasis on “characters.” Here are a few examples of real people who made it into the book:

John and Horace Dodge were machinists who started in the bicycle industry and began making car parts in 1900. Henry Ford soon became their primary customer and was ultimately the man who made their first fortune for them. John and Horace were excellent machinists and businessmen, but they were lousy drunks. There are dozens of stories of the Dodge brothers, usually led by John, starting drunken brawls in saloons, urinating in potted plants at fancy restaurants, and engaging in a variety of boorish behaviors. My favorite example is the story of John getting into an argument at a saloon with a Civil War veteran and beating him senseless.

Oh, did I forget to mention the Civil War vet was an elderly man whose legs had been amputated in the war? But John did the decent thing the next day. He brought $500 to the man’s house to buy him off. Bad guy—but a great character.

Vito Adamo was the first Detroit mob boss to consolidate the rackets. He was a Sicilian immigrant who took over large sections of the Detroit underworld from 1908-1912. Vito was known as the White Hand. The standard protection racket of the day was run by Black Hand gangs, which would intimidate business owners, usually fellow Sicilians, into paying them for protection. But Vito, being the entrepreneurial type, had his own twist—after the Black Hand went in and arranged for payments, the White Hand would follow and demand payment for protection from the Black Hand.

In both cases they were Vito Adamo’s men.

In 1913 Adamo got into a nasty war with the Gianolla brothers, another set of Sicilian immigrants who, interestingly enough, had a grocery store across the street from the Adamos’ grocery in a little town south of Detroit. But the Adamo-Gianolla war is another story (tentatively titled Motor City Shakedown, Minotaur Books, Fall 2011. Shameless plug. Sorry.)

But my absolute favorite discovery was a man known only as “Big Boy,” the 6’4”, 260-pound bouncer at the Bucket of Blood. Big Boy ruled the roost, carrying a huge .44 revolver and a blackjack, which he used when intimidation wasn’t enough.

On the other side of the ledger was Edsel Ford—an intelligent, artistic, and above all, loyal man. Yet how do we remember him? Most people think of the Ford Edsel—a car as far away from Edsel’s design aesthetic as it could be. Edsel helped design the first Lincoln Continental, a smooth-lined beauty ranked by many experts as one of the best car designs of all time. Another way Edsel is remembered is as Henry Ford’s lackey. Henry (Edsel’s father) cut him off at the knees at every turn. In one of his more duplicitous schemes, Henry made Edsel the President of Ford Motor Company at the age of twenty-five. Did he do this because he was ready to turn over the reins?

Of course not.

Henry made Edsel President because he wanted to buy out the smaller stockholders. He had already begun making noise about forming a new company that would make cheaper cars than the Model T. Henry knew that Edsel’s appointment would entice the stockholders to get out while the company was still worth something. It worked. And, of course, Henry didn’t start a new company.

For Edsel, things didn’t get better from there. For example, when he ordered a new office building constructed because the sales and accounting departments had run out of room, Henry solved the problem—he fired the entire accounting staff and ordered the construction stopped. Now there was plenty of room for the sales department, he told Edsel.

Yet Edsel hung on out of loyalty to the family, the company, and the Ford employees. It cost him his life. Edsel died of stomach cancer caused by ulcers when he was only forty-nine years old.


So the short answer to the question of why I set The Detroit Electric Scheme where and when I did, is the business, the city, and the players. But my question in return is, how could I have set my book anywhere else?