Sep 19, 2012
Andrew Davis

RM’s St. John’s Sale Shows That “Pure Electrics” Aren’t the Future; They’ve Been Around For Over a Century

You stand there in front of your open garage, staring at your 2012 Leaf or Prius or Volt, trying to think of any way you can possibly pay for your kids’ educations without parting with your dear old spark-fed friend.

But this is 2112, and Space College is expensive. The Jupiter commute alone costs so many credits that you had to pawn your grandma’s good nuclear reactor just to get your progeny home for last year’s Nondenominational Wintertime Visitation Period.

Will auctioning your hundred-year-old electric/hybrid/whatzis bring the kind of EarthBux you need for their education? Well, I’m not sure about that car, but thanks to RM’s St. John auction on July 28 in Plymouth, Michigan we have some idea of what a hundred-year-old electric car’s worth.

[In fact, they had four of them…]

Text courtesy RM Auctions unless otherwise noted [like this]. Vehicles listed in ascending auction lot order.

Lot 1321918 Detroit Electric Model 75B Brougham [$44,000]

“4.3 hp, 84-volt DC motor, five-speed controller, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and two-wheel mechanical brakes.

This superlative original 1918 Detroit Electric wears livery of Prussian Blue with black fenders, which are amazingly intact. The interior, including carpeting, upholstery, and headliner, all the way down to the bud vases is immaculate; it displays none of the moth damage or sagging that would be expected from cloth of this age. The underside presents well, and even the yellow wire spoke wheels have been spared from the touch of a well-meaning preservationist.

Bill Ruger acquired the car…and sourced replacement tires from Coker, copies of the original wiring diagram, and an original 1914 Detroit Electric instruction book. Consistent with his desire for all things to be functional, Mr. Ruger had an 84-volt charger custom-made, which still uses the original charging plug, at a cost of $1,800. He has also prepared an instructional document called “Detroit Electric: Controller Discussion.” All contacts have been cleaned, and the lights run off a separate 12-volt battery; modern sealed beam headlights have been installed inside the original housings. As an outstanding, unmolested original with provenance to match, this Electric has much to offer to a variety of collectors.”

Corduroy may not be the snazziest fabric, but judging by the interior of this car it’s the go-to material if you want an interior to last 100 years or more. And no, your eyes do not deceive you: those poles on the left side of the couch are the controls (though how you see the road if there’s a passenger in the jump seat right in front of you is a mystery). You can see everywhere else, however, thanks to the car’s phone-booth-style greenhouse. Regardless, what we have here is an all-original 94-year-old electric car that actually works. That someone paid just $44k for it blows my mind. Incredible.

Lot 1481922 Milburn Electric Light Brougham [$56,100]

“Model 27L. 76-volt General Electric DC electric motor, controller with four forward speeds and two reverse speeds, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and two-wheel mechanical brakes.

“An advantage of the Milburn was a battery pack on rollers, allowing fresh batteries to be quickly installed, eliminating the downtime for charging. [In 1922! Take that, Tesla!] Most Milburns were of the high-roof “phone booth” style, but a roadster, a delivery van, and a town car were also available.

“Finished in an elegantly understated silver-grey with black fenders, this Milburn exhibits a gracefulness uncommon in electric coupes of the period. The interior is nothing short of spectacular, with intricate petit-point embroidery in a very high-fashion motif. A superb example of the handsome Milburn Electric, this car will be an asset to any collection.”

If you’re a fan of smooth lines—and brocade birdies—then this was the lot for you. Almost everything you see on one of these electrics you’ll see on the rest—like the obsession with flower vases—but the Milburn as-presented just looks sharp. I suppose you could snazzy-up Lot 132 to look this nice, but I’m glad nobody’s gone and done it. On another note, seeing the control “sticks” up like that I wonder why there was a huge deal with amorous teens “back-seating” in the 1950s. Here you’ve got a couch, curtains, room to maneuver…

Lot 1591912 Baker Special Extension Coupe [$148,500]

“Model V. 3-1/2 hp 60-volt electric motor, shaft drive, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and two-wheel mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 80”

“Michigan restorer Bill Auerbach undertook a painstaking and comprehensive restoration. It is easy to underestimate the difficulty involved in restoring an Edwardian-era car, but special attention was required for the aluminum body panels and patent leather fenders, which were reconstructed by Amish craftsmen. The lovely cloth interior was remade by Mark Larder, of Homer, Michigan, in handsome brown broadcloth offset with brocade borders.

“The result is nothing short of awesome. The cabin resembles a Victorian drawing room, every bit luxuriously upholstered, as promised by the Baker catalogue, and with windows all around. There are virtually no mechanical distractions. Driver controls are simple: a lever, the tiller assembly, and two foot pedals. Instrumentation consists only of an ammeter and voltmeter unobtrusively mounted on the bulkhead below the front seats. Thus, the car is perfectly suited to genteel conversation at top speeds: in this case, 20 mph. Walter Baker called his electric automobile “The Aristocrat of Motordom.” Riding in this Special Extension Coupe, its new owner will certainly feel aristocratic.”

Welcome to the world’s fanciest wheeled phone booth, complete with an interior so posh that you’re almost afraid of sitting in it lest you might leave motes of your unworthiness in it. And say what you will about its being overwrought in every way, that’s kind of the point with a conveyance—this is no mere “car”—of this type and price range. I’d say it was the Rolls-Royce or Maybach of its era, but there actually WERE Rolls-Royces and Maybachs in that era, and this seems much nicer to my modern eye…

Lot 1601914 Detroit Electric Model 46 Cape Top Roadster [$99,000]

“4.3 hp, 48-volt DC motor, five-speed controller, solid front axle and live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and two-wheel mechanical brakes. Wheelbase: 100”

“In 1911, Detroit Electric offered no fewer than three roadsters, defying the more conventional upright coupes and broughams. Company records show that this car was shipped to the California Electric Garage on November 20, 1914. It had been ordered by Robert Liddle, of Pasadena, and cost him $2,400. As-delivered, it had a blue body and chassis with “#53 cloth” upholstery, a standard offering.

“As restored…this Detroit Electric roadster is finished in ivory with red moldings and chassis. The artillery wheels are highlighted by varnished wood spokes, and the interior features grey cloth with contrasting beige carpet. Nickel trim is used sparingly, principally on the lights, and is in generally good condition. The aluminum running boards have an attractive cast diamond pattern with the Detroit Electric logo in relief. It is believed that only two other Model 46 Detroit Electric roadsters still survive.”

Being an automotive designer in this era must’ve been great. You could put anything anywhere you wanted once you got the mundane stuff—like seats and wheels—out of the way. Feel like putting the gauges on the floor? Great! Want to cram all of the controls onto a shaft at the far left of the sofa-like seating area? Whatever works! As for being an automotive stylist, however, well, that job pretty much didn’t exist judging by the bathtubby look of this machine. Still, as the saying goes, I’d take this over a Prius any day of the week and twice on Sunday…

Source : RM Auctions