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Electric Cars in North Dakota


Automobiles changed life in America about as much as any invention of the 1900s. In a rural state like North Dakota, the long distances made automobiles a particularly welcome improvement over horse and buggy.

Early on, there were three types of autos available – powered by steam, electricity, or gasoline, and it was not immediately clear which system would triumph. Steam-powered autos, plagued by boiler explosions and corrosion, eventually fell by the wayside. Gasoline engines sputtered at first, being difficult to start, operate and maintain.

Electrics, “shockingly” enough, seemed poised to capture the market. On this date in 1915, the Grand Forks Daily Herald printed an advertisement for Detroit Electric cars that touted what it called the “obvious advantages” of going electric.

The ad touted Detroit Electric’s finest features – that it ran clean with “no fumes or odors of gasoline about it.” Its electric motor was “perfectly silent in operation.”

Electric motors were simply designed – having no sparkplugs, carburetors, magnetos, oil-pans, or radiators to leak, fizzle, rust, or break. Electrics were simple to fix, rarely needing any attention at all. They started easily, needing no hand-cranking. And electrics rode smoother, without (quote) “explosions to jar and tire you and batter the mechanism.”

The ad went on to tout the Detroit Electric’s “wonderful simplicity,” without a clutch, allowing everyone in the family, including “mother, wife, and daughter” to drive more “safely through even the most crowded streets . . . than . . . [with] a heavy, complicated gas car.” Electrics, being so easily-drivable, also required no chauffeurs.

Improved batteries gave electrics “plenty of power and all the speed” needed in that era. The battery was sufficient for about 65 miles of driving, daily, enough for city drivers and many farmers.

Despite its advantages, electric autos never really caught on. North Dakotans didn’t buy many. In 1911, the vast majority of the state’s 7,220 licensed automobiles, according to historian Carl F.W. Larson, “were gasoline-fueled” – counting only about 14 steamers and approximately “six electrics.”

Gasoline-powered cars triumphed, due to electric starters and the superior horsepower. After all, electrics only cruised at 20 to 25 miles per hour.

By the late 1920s, electric automobiles practically vanished, with only the aforementioned Detroit Electric Car Company surviving.

And, as history revolves like a spinning wheel, electric-cars have recharged, only this time with dynamic brand names like Prius, Fusion, Leaf, Tesla, and Volt.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Detroit Electric,” advertisements, Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 30, 1915, p. 10; August 16, 1915, p. 3; September 6, 1915, p. 4; September 13, 1915, p. 2; September 20, 1915, p. 1; September 23, 1915, p. 3.

Carl F.W. Larson, “A History of the Automobile in North Dakota to 1911,” North Dakota History 54, no. 4 (Fall 1987): p. 20.

“Electric Vehicle Man’s Arguments,” New York Times, January 19, 1913.

“Electric Cars Fill Needs in Motoring,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 31, 1915, p A9.

“Detroit Electric Cruises 100 Miles,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, November 10, 1921.

“The Electric Automobile For Women Drivers,” Bismarck Tribune, July 8, 1912, p. 4.

“Electrics Vanish,” Bismarck Tribune, March 22, 1928, p. 13.