How to drive a 100-year-old electric car

Lessons From Mrs Lampard, Ace Chicago Saleswoman From A Century Ago

What do women want most from their car? Good looks. That’s not a sexist answer because it comes from Mrs C M Lampard, a saleswoman with Detroit Electric Car Company in Chicago, before World War-1.

“Ninety-nine out of one hundred women buy a car on appearance in preference to one that may be better in point of construction and safety. So many cars are top-heavy, they are wider than they should be, their weight is not evenly distributed, they may be freakish, even, but if a woman likes its appearance she will buy it,” she told reporter Mabel Condon in 1913.


Lampard was quite a knowledgable sales hand, considering she had switched from selling theatre advertisements to cars only recently. She was a keen learner. “I’ve just been here since the first of the year, and in no time was fully equipped with the technical knowledge, and now—why, if I thought the salesmen here knew anything about the car that I didn’t know, I wouldn’t rest easy a minute.”

Inside a 100-year-old electric

What was it like to drive an electric car those days? The cars themselves were nothing like the ones we know. You would be quite lost amid their controls. There was no steering wheel, and no stick-shift. Instead, you might have found two black rods of unequal length at your left elbow, and three pedals below. This short lesson from Mrs Lampard might prove helpful:

“These two bars control the driving. You place them horizontally, so. This shorter one is manipulated with the left hand and controls the power and you steer with the longer one.” So, the shorter bar was the accelerator. The braking was rather well thought out for emergencies. The three controls on the floor could be depressed together to freeze the vehicle.

“These two pedals are the brakes and the one between is the power cut-off. In a moment of confusion, when one must stop and stop quickly, and excitement makes your hands forget to do the right thing, the natural tendency is to straighten out and brace yourself against something, and with one forward movement of your foot, you press forward all three and automatically bring your car to a standstill. Then you can collect your thoughts, release your brakes and proceed with judgement.”

The cars weren’t fast, but they could be quite heavy because of the batteries they carried, despite being built out of aluminium. Hence, the need for desperate braking. “The entire body is made of aluminium; that is why these cars are so light. The greatest weight they carry is that of the batteries.”

Some of the early electrics had batteries slung under the body, but the small cars Lampard sold carried them front and aft: “Here they are, under these hoods at each end of the car. There are 40 cells in this car. It is possible for a woman to take entire charge of her own car if she has a rectifier (here’s an article on charging) in her garage.”

Electric cars were certainly easier to run and maintain in the city, even though they could not race the gasoline vehicles. Mrs Lampard lists the advantages: “There is no chauffeur disturbance, no tire troubles, no sickening odours and it’s always clean.” Monthly maintenance was also free: “Once a month our customers may bring their cars in and have them thoroughly oiled and inspected, gratis.”
But why were electric cars immune to tyre trouble?

Driving for mental health, vigour and beauty

There is no pleasure in city driving anymore, and even the Chicago of Mrs Lampard’s time was a crowded place with slow, chaotic traffic, but she was a student of the glass-is-half-full school. She considered driving a healthy ‘game’ and recommended it for many reasons:

“Driving an electric automobile, while it is a modest, sedate conveyance in appearance, is, nevertheless, a most fascinating game. It’s just as exhilarating, just as exciting, just as stimulating as any other sport; in fact, it’s an all-around tonic, mentally as well as physically.”

Driving was also her way of keeping up with the times: “It keeps real warm human blood flowing through your veins. Why, my dear, it makes you both act and appear years younger. It makes you feel you are part of this great ‘right up to the clock tick’ modern sway of ‘things doing.’”

She even claimed driving made us better human beings and was liberating for women: “When you are threading your way in and out of the vast swarm of vehicles that congest this great downtown Chicago, in the busy hours, you are bringing into play all your faculties. You must be alert and watchful every moment, careful and calculating in thought and action, courteous and charitable to drivers and pedestrians. In fact, it makes you a broader-minded woman in every way. Makes you more self-reliant and gives you a feeling of accomplishment in the knowledge that you are an atom in the history-making of that leading industry, the electric vehicle.”

If you were a car maker, what wouldn’t you give to hire saleswomen like Mrs Lampard?


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