Saturday, October 2, 2021

Duluth was pioneer in electric vehicles...

1947 Cincinnati Trolley bus, similar to those in Duluth 
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/October 2, 2021

Electric cars are on the horizon. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever have one. I have a birthday coming up on Monday and, counting the candles on the cake, I’m not at all sure an electric car is in my future. I’m not even sure there’s a cake large enough for all the candles.


But you never know. I’m all for electric cars, even though I grew up in an era of gas-guzzling, tail fin sporting Detroit iron monsters. I had a few of those over the years and foolishly thought they’d be around forever.


For some reason I recall once saying to a friend: “I’ll never own a car that doesn’t have a V-8 engine and white sidewall tires.” That’ll give you some idea of how prescient a forecaster of things to come I was. For the past 35-plus years I have owned only fairly small — you could say “compact”  — cars with four-cylinder engines and black sidewall tires.


Things change.


But I still look back fondly on those thrilling days of yesteryear when the greatest achievement in my life — a goal shared by many other boys — was to get a driver’s license. We could get them at age 15 in those days.


We were car crazy, often to the detriment of such things as scholastic achievement. Whose car could go the fastest in a quarter mile or could beat the car in the next lane for a block or two when a red light turned to green — called “drag” racing — were the important things in our lives. (As an aside, and just to be clear, drag racing did not involve dressing up in women’s clothing. Still, some cars had skirts on their back fenders.)


Oh, the cars were supposed to look nice too, and be “customized.” That involved removal of such useful things as trunk handles, door handles, hood ornaments and other standard fixtures and replacing them with nothing. Nothing. Holes left where the removed parts had been were filled with steel patches and body putty and smoothed and painted over. Rear ends were either lowered or raised. Cool. Very cool.


And to be cool, your car also had to have dual exhausts with “straight” mufflers that loudly rumbled, called “smitties,” especially while drag racing. Many of today’s pickup truck drivers still adhere to this twin pipes, loud-muffler practice. No whitewalls though.


Here in Duluth, those of us who were like-minded about cars formed clubs, called “Car Clubs,” ostensibly devoted to promoting safe driving (yeah, right) and assisting stranded motorists (uh-huh). Our West Duluth club was called the “Regents,” in honor of the governing body of the University of Minnesota. Or maybe not. It just sounded classy.


This was the mindset for many males of my generation as America moved inexorably away from behemoth cars to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, largely imported from Japan, although the German Volkswagen came on pretty strong too with its original “bug.”


And now electric cars are looming, perhaps the greatest contrast with the old Detroit iron, slab-sided gas guzzlers that could ever be imagined. They don’t even have tail pipes or mufflers.


You wonder how fast the electric cars would be off the line in a downtown drag race? Is there anybody still alive who cares?


I have some insight, though, into how fast electric vehicles might be, especially when starting out. I’m old enough to remember when most of the transit buses in Duluth were powered by electricity. They didn’t have huge batteries, like today’s electric vehicles, but were connected by trollies to power lines suspended above the streets on which hey plied.


I know it seems incredible today, but there they were, well into the 1950s. Before the trolley buses, Duluth had streetcars on rails, also connected to power lines strung above them. They went out before World War II. Even I don’t remember them.


Back to how fast electric vehicles might be in a drag race with some gas guzzling hot-rodder aching for a little action at the turn of a traffic signal.


Those old trolley buses had at their disposal every available ampere of power immediately upon pressing the accelerator whereas a car needed to rev up its power. I remember being told to never get in a drag race with a trolley bus. You’ll lose.


Of course you’d never get into such a race. Bus drivers would never deign to endanger their passengers by racing around the streets of the town. Too bad.


Just for the historical record, there was one major drawback to trolley buses. Sometimes the trolleys would become disengaged from the power wires above and drivers would have to pile out and re-connect them with cables extending from the back of the bus up to the trolleys.


It was a great opportunity for mischief when young riders would disembark and run to the back and disengage the trolley on purpose. I knew one kid who never got off a trolley bus without disabling it.


Still, those electrically powered buses put Duluth into the fight against greenhouse gas and climate change/global warming 75 years ahead of today’s efforts.


And we didn’t even know it.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at


pomander said...

Hi Jim,

I enjoyed the bus column and was going to discuss with you at Perkins but had to rest following surgery.

Remember back in Hunters Park at our early morning News Tribune newspaper drop off corner (Abe Lubow was the deliver driver, always chomping the cigar!). we sorted our papers (bundles were tied with wire) and proceeded to weigh down each side of the extended wire and tossed on top of the electric trolly lines creating a spectacular sparkler display. This was a daily ritual and don't recall anybody missing their bus because of the electric lines being shorted out!

See you at Perkins in Novmber.


Jim Heffernan said...

Glad you enjoyed the column. Yeah, not too many of us left who remember trolley buses. Quite the prank you newsboys performed with the wires. Ah, the memories.

Hey, see you on Nov. 1. (BTW... would have written more but will do so on e-mail.I guess I need your e-mail. Let's exchange that info in November.)

pomander said...

OK Jim.