by Tony Whitney

This year will see the widest variety of gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles ever offered to the North American public. You’ll be able to buy anything from a compact Honda Insight two-seater to a husky full-size Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. In between, there are two sizes of sedan and several SUVs. In short, hybrids are now part of the automotive mainstream.

Buyers of hybrids usually see themselves as bold pioneers of a radical powertrain trend, but as savvy automotive historians will point out, few vehicle advancements outside the realm of pure electronics are truly new. Many features of the modern automobile from multi-cam, multi-valve engines to disc brakes and cast aluminum wheels were around more than half a century ago and longer. And so it is with hybrid vehicles, according to research published by Toyota, which has a number of hybrids on the market for 2005.

Just short of a hundred years ago, according to Toyota’s research, a Mr. Piper applied for a patent to cover a vehicle powertrain, which would use electric motors to bolster the power of a conventional gasoline engine. The idea at the time was to boost acceleration and Piper’s plan was for a vehicle that would top 25 mph – no sluggish speed back then – in 10 seconds or so. At the time, the average vehicle would likely take over half a minute to get to the magic 25 mph figure. The idea was sound, but the use of motor vehicles grew rapidly at the beginning of the last century and performance developed to unheard of levels. Fuel was cheap and motorists, unhindered by any thoughts of reducing vehicles emissions, were in no mood to experiment with new powertrains. Piper had the right idea at the wrong time in automotive history.

Other inventors and would-be automakers besides Piper were busy with hybrid powertrains back in the early days of motoring. Toyota’s research points out that in France, the Compagnie Parisienne des Voitures Electriques (Paris Electric Car Company), built a series of electric and hybrid vehicles during the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. French automakers were very active in the pioneering days of motoring and at one time, France was the world’s biggest producer of vehicles until overtaken by the US. It’s sad that today, the big French automakers are entirely absent from the North American market. One of Paris Electric’s hybrid vehicles – the Kreiger – also had front wheel drive and power steering, and that was back in 1903.

1900 Lohner-Porsche
Lohner-Porsche 1900. Source: auta5p.car.cz. Click image to enlarge

During this heady period of automotive history, an Austrian company named Jacob Lohner came up with a system that involved electric motors integrated with the wheel hubs with power thus delivered directly to the wheels. One of the employees at the time was a youthful genius called Ferdinand Porsche who later went on to even greater things with the original VW Beetle and his own line of legendary sports cars. Porsche’s involvement must have been considerable because the cars later became known as Lohner-Porsches. When gasoline engines were used to generate electricity for the electric motors, the closest thing to today’s hybrids was created. Toyota’s researchers describe this development as: “the classic, conceptually fundamental hybrid.”

Other companies building hybrid vehicles between 1900 and the early 1940s included General Electric, Siemens-Schukert of Berlin, Germany and the Woods Motor Vehicle Company in Chicago. Woods offered its Dual Power model in 1917 which involved electric motors and a gasoline engine working in unison to run the vehicle at 35 mph. Running solely on electric power, the vehicle could only just manage 20 mph. There’s a Woods hybrid on show at the famed Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which perhaps should be displayed alongside a Toyota Prius or similar current hybrid. One of the most enduring of the hybrid pioneers was the Walker Vehicle Company of Chicago, which built trucks up to the early 1940s that used gasoline/electric powertrains.

There was even a Canadian hybrid pioneer – Galt Motor Company of Galt, Ontario. In 1914, the company produced its Galt Gas Electric that involved a two-cylinder, two-stroke engine with a modest 10 horsepower which drove a 40-volt, 90-amp Westinghouse generator. The company claimed that owners could get 70 miles on one gallon of gasoline and do up to 20 miles just on the battery. Its top speed of 30 mph was not great for its time and buyers flocked to conventional power to get better performance. The Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ontario, has what is believed to be the only surviving Galt Gas Electric. Other early hybrids included a delivery vehicle from Marathon Electric Car, which used a Briggs & Stratton engine, a power unit now associated mostly with lawn mowers and other applications less demanding than roadgoing motor vehicles.

It’s worth pointing out that hybrid powertrains have been used for many years in the railroad and heavy construction fields. I once visited General Motors Diesel in Ontario where huge mine haulers are built with a big diesel engine generating electricity for electric motors at each giant wheel.

As a comparison with those early hybrid efforts, Toyota’s 2005 Prius hatchback has a 78-horsepower gasoline engine and 67-horsepower electric motor. The two power units work together in what Toyota calls “Hybrid Synergy Drive” and electricity is also produced by regenerative braking in which power is stored when the brakes are applied. The system enables the car to run on electric power, the gasoline engine or a combination of both – making the Prius a true hybrid.

Hybrid vehicles have a longer history than most of us realize and perhaps those early pioneers would be surprised if they’d known it would be the early part of the 21st century that really saw this type of powertrain gain international acceptance.

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