1917 Woods Dual Power
1917 Woods Dual Power. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Peter Bleakney

Photo Gallery: Alternative Power – Lessons from the past

Los Angeles, California – With all the excitement of late over alternate fuels and related technologies, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a recent phenomenon. It’s not. About the time the first internal combustion-engined vehicle sputtered to life over a century ago, people were searching for a better, or at least different way, to mobilize the masses. And before that, well, anything that didn’t eat hay and sleep standing up was considered an alternatively powered vehicle.

The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is currently running an exhibit entitled “Alternative Power – Lessons from the Past, Inspiration for the Future”, which features some intriguing examples of motorized transport that didn’t default to the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.

The oldest vehicle on display is the 1897 battery-electric Anthony, constructed in Los Angeles by 17 year-old Earl C. Anthony – an electrical engineer who built the 1.5-hp electric motor and fashioned the rest out of lumber, bicycle forks, wheel chairs gears and other odds and ends.

1917 Detroit Electric
1917 Detroit Electric. Click image to enlarge

Battery-powered electric cars became quite popular in the early 1900’s – built largely for the urban female driver who, in this pre-electric starter motor era, didn’t want to deal with hand-cranking the gasoline cars. The Anderson Electric Company, which produced the Detroit Electric, was one of largest manufacturers of electric cars.

The red 1917 model in the exhibit is operated by two folding levers (one for steering and one for speed) and has two brake pedals. Detroit Electric was one of the first production automobiles to use curved glass.

Electric cars faded away with the introduction of electric start – their biggest shortcomings being lack of range and long charge time. Hmmm, sounds strangely familiar.

1974 Dutcher Steam
1974 Dutcher Steam
1925 Doble Steam Car (top; photo by Bill Vance); 1974 Dutcher Steam (bottom). Click image to enlarge

Steam power was also a big deal in the early part of the 20th century. Having had the privilege of being driven around Burbank in Jay Leno’s 1924 Doble a couple of years ago, I can attest to the steam car’s prodigious torque and quiet operation. Although to be fair, the Los Angeles-built Doble was far and away the most advanced of the steam-powered vehicles.

The 1909 White Model O Touring steam car at the Petersen was not quite such an engineering marvel. A mid-mounted boiler fed live steam to the front-mounted engine, but problems with cold start and the inherent complications of steam car operation sunk the White after only one year of production.

Adjacent to the White is a more modern take on steam power. In 1972, the California State Assembly contracted two companies to build a steam car. The 1974 Dutcher was one, built in San Diego by Dutcher Industries Inc. It is powered by a four-cylinder piston engine driven by a steam generator designed and built by International Harvester. Although it proved satisfactory in testing, the Dutcher never made it to production.

1917 Woods Dual Power
1917 Woods Dual Power. Click image to enlarge

The concept of gas-electric hybrid power has been kicking around for quite some time too. In 1902, Ferdinand Porsche built one of the earliest gas-electric hybrids, employing electric hub motors in the front wheels. He won the 1902 Exelberg Hillclimb in that vehicle.

On display at the Petersen is an unrestored 1917 Woods Dual Power – a Chicago-built gas-electric hybrid that features a four-cylinder gas engine coupled to an electric motor/generator. Like Toyota’s hybrid system of today, the Woods could run on gas or electricity. Unlike Toyota’s system, it didn’t have the modern micro-chip to manage its affairs. The Woods was slow, heavy, expensive and complex to service. It was only produced for two years, and this tattered sedan is the only example extant.

1963 Chrysler Turbine car
Chrysler Turbine engine
1963 Chrysler Turbine car, top; Chrysler Turbine engine, bottom. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps one of the most well-known alternate power vehicles is the 1963 Chrysler turbine car. After years of research on the gas turbine engine, Chrysler unveiled this car in 1963. Fifty-five identical prototypes were built and turned over to randomly selected consumers in a unique two-year market-testing program.

The turbine engines spun to 45,700 r.p.m. and would run on diesel fuel, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and even vegetable oil. While showing the turbine car to some Russian dignitaries, Chrysler had it running on Russian vodka.

Due to high fuel consumption and impending emission regulations, the project was shelved, and all but a handful of the turbine cars were destroyed – apparently so Chrysler could avoid paying import duties on the Italian made Ghia Coachwork bodies.

1938 Citroen 11
1938 Citroen 11. Click image to enlarge

An interesting alternative fuel solution was born out of necessity during the severe gas shortages of WW II in Europe. Many vehicles were converted to create, and run on, “coal gas” or “wood gas”. The 1938 Citroen 11 shown is fitted with a Gohin-Poulenc gazogene generator that, via the bulbous fender components, produced a combustible gas by partially burning wood or coal. Engines were easily converted to run on this gas, although power output was poor and the system created excessive pollution. Immediately following the war, the bulky gasification contraptions were removed, so vehicles such as this Citroen are very rare.

Solar power is represented by a model of the 1988 Mana La – a Hawaiian-built solar car that competed in the 3000-km Australian World Solar Challenge. It reached a top speed of 85 mph.

1988 Mana La
1988 Mana La. Click image to enlarge

On Earth Day in 2006, Nissan donated an X-Terra FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to the Petersen Automotive Museum. Designed as a test bed for Nissan’s fuel cell program, this SUV began public road testing in the Sacramento area in 2001 and then spent time on the auto show circuit. The body was designed to lift off the chassis for easy viewing of the fuel cell components.

One of the most interesting aspects of this show, aside from the ingenious forward thinking of these projects, is the fact that many of the displayed vehicles represent failed attempts in finding a viable alternative to the omnipresent gasoline internal combustion engine.

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