Gasoline or electric? For the first time in more than 100 years, both are viable options for many car buyers—but what was that decision like at the turn of the last century? With the help of The Henry Ford museum, we travel back in time to do a head-to-head comparison; our test cars are a 1921 Ford Model T Touring Car and a 1922 Detroit Electric Model 90 Coupe.
In 1921, the Model T was approaching the peak of its popularity. Henry Ford had made few changes to the T since its introduction in the fall of 1908, and yet sales continued to climb. Likewise, the Anderson Electric Car Company hadn’t made many changes to its Detroit Electric models since 1914 or so. Electric cars had rivaled gasoline in the previous decade, boosted by high fuel prices during the Great War, but sales began to wane by 1922.
Posh Detroit Electric vs. Spartan Ford
Then as now, electric cars were expensive to build, so the Detroit Electric was positioned as a luxury car. The Model 90’s cabin is outfitted like an Edwardian sitting room, complete with plush carpet, drapes, flower vases, and what appears to be a well-stuffed love seat along the back wall. That’s the perch for the driver and her companion (electric cars were invariably marketed to women; Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, was one of Detroit Electric’s most prominent customers). There’s a cushy bucket seat up front which swivels toward the back seat for socializing, and a small padded stool for a fourth occupant. Eight giant windows—with curved glass in the corners, a novelty at the time—let in all the sunlight you can ask for. The two-tone paint finish, black over blue, looks deep enough to dive into.
The Ford, on the other hand, feels as stingy as the Detroit is posh. The seats are simple affairs upholstered in a cloth-based imitation leather, and the wooden floor is covered with a rubber mat—waterproof, we assume, since our test car has a folding top but no side windows. There’s also no driver’s door, because why do you need one? Only rear passengers are allowed the extravagance of getting in and out of the car on whichever side they please. As for the paint, well, you don’t have to ask—it’s the same color as the other 971,609 Model Ts Ford built that year.
Of course, the level of luxury is reflected in the prices: By 1921, Henry Ford had whittled the base price of his car down to $370 ($5,300 adjusted for inflation), and a touring car like ours would have started at $415 ($6,000). The Detroit Electric’s base price was $2,985 ($38,500), and our test car listed closer to $4,000—nearly $61,500 in today’s dollars.
Getting started in the Model T and the Detroit Electric
Driving the Model T helps you understand the appeal of the Detroit Electric. Our T is equipped with an electric starter, then only in its third year as an option; as with many things, Ford was slow to adopt such modern technology. Our test T is one of the cars used to give rides around Greenfield Village, and the whole fleet has been fitted with electric starters for safety’s sake. Hand-cranking a car is dangerous business, and if not done carefully—and sometimes even if done carefully—it can result in broken wrists, arms, and jaws.
Not that electric starting the T is turn-key easy. Here’s how you do it: If the car is cold, tug on the priming lever next to the radiator to set the choke. Pull the handbrake lever as far back as it will go and make sure the ignition timing lever—that’s the left-hand one on the steering column—is all the way up to the fully retarded position. Pull the throttle—that’s the right-hand lever—down to the fifth or sixth notch and turn the ignition switch to Battery. If the engine is warm and the ignition timing is advanced slightly, the engine may fire on its own at this point. Assuming it doesn’t, step on the starter button and the engine should start right up. Turn the ignition switch to Magneto and you’re ready to drive.
If you’re hand-cranking your Model T, set the handbrake and throttle as above. The 1919 owner’s manual recommends advancing the timing three or four notches, though this increases the risk of kick-back and personal injury. If the engine is cold, prime it with the ignition off by pulling the priming lever while giving the engine a couple of half-turns with the starting crank. Turn the ignition switch to Magneto and engage the crank at about the 9 o’clock position. Cranking should be done with the left hand, palm up and open, so that if the engine kicks back the lever won’t yank your arm down and dislocate your shoulder. You’ll also want to keep your face and right shoulder clear to avoid possible broken bones. Pull up sharply, and with a couple of good yanks the engine should start.
Starting the Detroit Electric is quite a bit simpler: Turn on the switch.
Driving the Detroit Electric
Likewise, getting down the road in the Detroit Electric is a lot more straightforward. Once you settle comfortably into your couch, you’ll fold two levers down from the door pillar. One is the accelerator, which has a neutral position and four power notches, and the other is the steering tiller. Stepping on a pedal at the base of the driver’s seat engages reverse, and a double pedal ahead of the driver applies and latches on the brakes.
Mechanically, the Detroit Electric is as simple as you would expect: The accelerator is linked to a drum controller with copper contacts that sits under the driver’s seat. Batteries are located in the boxes fore and aft of the cabin. Our Detroit was originally equipped with the optional Edison nickel-iron battery that came with an advertised range of 80 miles. (The original battery has been removed for preservation, and the car is powered by lead-acid car batteries.) The electric motor is slung under the frame and directly drives the differential on the rear axle. The brakes are mechanical, rear wheels only, and the whole shooting match rides on solid axles suspended by leaf springs.
The Ford Model T has a similar chassis setup, but that’s where the similarities end. The engine is a model of engineering simplicity: A 2.9-liter (177 cid) side-valve flathead four-cylinder that doesn’t even have a water pump, relying instead on convection to circulate its cooling water. A single-barrel updraft carburetor supplies fuel while a flywheel-mounted magneto provides power for the spark. Instead of a distributor, the Model T uses four trembler coils. Unlike modern ignition systems, they produce a constant spark as long as they are engaged by the timer, which is why you can sometimes start a Model T engine without cranking. Output is 20 horsepower at 1,600 rpm, and torque is a surprisingly strong 83 lb-ft at a mere 900 rpm. The two-speed transmission is a planetary gearset, not unlike the type used in modern-day automatics—except there’s nothing automatic about it.
Driving the Model T
The Model T has three pedals, but they don’t do what a modern driver would expect. Here’s your basic Model T driving primer: Put your left foot on the left pedal, which controls the clutch and low/high range, and is currently held in its center (neutral) position by the handbrake lever. Use your right foot to step on the right pedal, which applies the transmission brake. Now squeeze the handle of the handbrake lever and push it all the way forward, which releases the wheel brakes and the high-range lockout (the gizmo holding the left pedal in the neutral position). Give her a little gas by pulling down on the throttle lever. Take your right foot off the brake and push the left pedal all the way to the floor to engage low gear. Off you go!
Once you get moving, it’s best to shift right into high range. This takes some practice to accomplish smoothly; basically, you’ll want to drop the throttle to idle as you lift your foot all the way off the left pedal, which—with the handbrake lever all the way back—is now free to move to the uppermost position that engages high gear. You’ll want to move the pedal quickly into neutral and slowly into high. Once the shift is made, you can drive with the hand throttle. The T’s engine doesn’t mind being lugged, and you can slow down enough to take corners (preferably at a walking pace) without downshifting.
To stop the car, push the left pedal to its center position, step on the right pedal and hope you have enough room. For a panic stop, you can close the throttle and shift down to low as you brake; just be sure to get into neutral as the car stops, so it won’t stall. In a pinch, you can pull on the handbrake to engage the rear wheel brakes. To back up, stop the car, hold the left pedal in the center position (or cheat by putting the handbrake in its middle position, which engages the high-range lockout but not the brakes) and push the center pedal to the floor to engage reverse.
Ford vs Detroit Electric: Which is quicker?
What about raw performance? The Detroit Electric can get away pretty quickly if you pull the tiller straight back to the fourth notch, though The Henry Ford staff is much more gentle with this century-old artifact. As with a modern electric car, power is smooth and even and, apart from a slight growling from the gears, eerily silent.
Contrast that with the Model T, which is louder than we expected and vibrates like the bed at an hourly-rate motel. The T has plenty of low-end torque, and you can get away quickly if you leave it in Low range and race the engine, but the rigmarole of shifting into high gear slows things down. Top speed largely depends on the condition of the car and the nerve of the driver: 40 mph is possible, but the Model T is a handful at even half that speed, thanks to fast-and-loose steering, excessive body lean even at a parking-lot pace (like the Detroit Electric, the T lacks shock absorbers and anti-roll bars), and freight-train-like stopping distances. Driving fast is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of bladder.
The Detroit Electric tops out at a more sedate 25 mph, plenty adequate as speed limits in those days (when they existed) were generally 10 mph in town and 15 mph on rural roads. Though steering with the tiller takes getting used to, the quiet sitting-room-like surroundings isolate you from the outside world and make driving a much more relaxing experience.
Picking a Winner in the 1920s
A hundred years ago, range and infrastructure were the primary challenges facing electric cars. The infrastructure issue wasn’t merely a lack of chargers, but rather a lack of electricity. Most big cities were wired up, but for much of America rural electrification was still far in the future—remember that when our Model 90 was built, the Tennessee Valley Authority didn’t yet exist and the Rural Electrification Administration wouldn’t be formed for nearly a decade and a half. Gasoline, steam, and horse power (the warm-blooded kind) were the only viable alternatives.
Electric cars remained popular with doctors, who needed fast, reliable starting, and well-to-do urban women, who preferred the electric’s clean, simple, odor-free operation. Even so, Charles Kettering’s electric starter of 1912 was the killer app that put the (temporary) end of the electric car within sight. Electrification, when it came, spread rapidly, but Americans overwhelmingly chose gasoline for their cars. Detroit Electric built its last car in 1939, having sold some 13,000 since 1907—a fraction of the 15 million Model Ts Ford built between late 1908-1927.
Picking a Winner in the 2020s
Just as with modern-day electric cars, it’s hard not to like the Detroit Electric once you experience it. The comfortable cabin, quiet ride, and simple controls make it a breeze to drive, and it’s easy to pity the Model T driver, his arms, hands, and legs in constant motion, exposed to the elements with his ears ringing and his nostrils stinging from the byproducts of his engine. The Detroit Electric is slow and its range is short, but in the limited confines of Greenfield Village, it seems a much more sensible ride.
But there’s something enchanting about the Model T, complex and unsophisticated as it may be. Here is a car that removes nearly all of the barriers between organism and mechanism. A Model T driver is intimately involved with the process of getting fuel into the engine and igniting it, while literally manipulating the internal elements of the transmission with his (or her) own two feet. Its crudity forces you into a one-ness with the machine. Driving the T is a lot of work, but it’s also a form of machine-made magic, something you just don’t get in the parlor-on-wheels that is the Detroit Electric. The Model 90 is a city cruiser, but the Model T was designed to go anywhere, and once you get familiar with its controls you begin to feel like anywhere is exactly where you can go, with only the aid of a couple of wrenches and a few obliging fuel stations along the way.
For us, the clear winner of this comparison is Mr. Ford’s magnificent Model T.
|1921 Ford Model T Touring Car Specifications|
|ENGINE||1.9L flathead 8-valve I-4/20 hp @ 1,600 rpm, 83 lb-ft @ 900 rpm|
|LAYOUT||3-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|FUEL ECONOMY||20 mpg|
|L x W x H||134.5 x 68.0 x 83.0 in|
|WEIGHT||1,700 lb (est)|
|TOP SPEED||40 mph (est)|
|1922 Detroit Electric Model 90 Coupe Specifications|
|ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN||24.3 kWh Edison NiFe battery, series-wound DC motor; 10 hp (est)|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, mid-motor, RWD coupe|
|ELECTRIC RANGE||80 miles|
|L x W x H||159.0 x 65.0 x 71.0 in|
|WEIGHT||3,600 lb with battery (est)|
|TOP SPEED||25 mph|