Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Paul Williams

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Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus

New York, New York – It’s not exactly beautiful, but 111 years ago, it was surely the most futuristic vehicle on the road. “It” is the Semper Vivus — Latin for “always alive” — the world’s first hybrid electric car.

Designed and built by a young Ferdinand Porsche in partnership with Austrian coachbuilder Ludwig Lohner and Company, the original Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus is lost to history. But after four years of painstaking work, a recreation by Porsche in collaboration with a team led by Hubert Drescher (of Karosseriebau Drescher) recently debuted at the Geneva Auto Show, and subsequently in New York City at a special event preceding the 2011 automobile show there.

Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus
Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus; bottom photo courtesy Porsche. Click image to enlarge

The turn of the last century was truly the dawn of the automotive industry, and arguably just like the today’s emerging Internet and mobile communications industries, there were thousands of companies vying for success in this new technological frontier. Pushing the analogy a little more, there were also competing operating systems; not Android, Microsoft and Apple, but steam, gasoline and electricity.

Steam had particular challenges for application to personal transportation, but electricity and gasoline were both popular choices by car makers and buyers. By 1898, Ferdinand Porsche (who would later in life design the Volkswagen Beetle and found the present-day Porsche company) was big on electricity, and had already constructed an electric motor that could be fitted inside a wheel.

His idea was to place such a motor in each of the front hubs of a vehicle, and power them with a lead-acid battery that would be charged by two generators. The generators would receive their power from two water-cooled engines located behind the seat. Interestingly, there was no mechanical connection between the engines and the drive axle, relying on the gasoline engines only to recharge the batteries. Excess power was stored in the batteries, just like today’s hybrid vehicles.

An added bonus to the concept was that the generators could be used as starter motors for the gasoline engines by reversing their polarity. Again, this is typical of hybrid systems today.

A Lohner-Porsche electric vehicle was shown at the Paris World Exposition in 1900, but it wasn’t the only product of Porsche’s imagination and technical ability. Subsequently he added all-wheel drive and four-wheel brakes, and variations of the vehicle were built and sold to the end of 1905. Then, as now, the high cost of the complex machines was a deterrent to strong sales (although today’s hybrid manufacturers are successfully reducing prices as sales volume increases).

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