Hybrid History, Part One: The [Very] Early Years

By Sam Boni


“Hybridization is the path to the future,” asserted Dave Hermance recently. He is the executive engineer for environmental engineering at the Toyota Technical Center, USA. As an interim solution, hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) are in the news more and more every day. Hybrids surely will be in our future, but do they already have a past?

A hybrid electric vehicle combines the best features of the familiar internal combustion engine (ICE) and the forever reliable electric motor. But just a few years ago a survey of 14,000 people found that only 14% of North Americans were aware of this technology. With today’s relentless advertising to “go green”, most everyone is at least aware of the hybrid’s existence by now.

Apropos history: I learned early during my automotive education that a young Ferdinand Porsche worked in ‘mixed propulsion’ more than one hundred years ago. In 1899 (another source quotes 1897) the young engineer was hired by the Austrian Lohner Carriage Company, when owner Jakob wanted to diversify into the new horse-less carriages. Porsche used a gasoline engine running at a constant speed to turn a dynamo, or generator, which charged a number of accumulators, or batteries. The current from these early batteries –plates in wooden boxes- powered hub motors, modified to form part of the front wheels. This system eliminated the need for a gearbox, drive shafts or chain, and a clutch. Without the mechanical friction losses it had an amazing efficiency of 83%, as reported by a Thomas Scholz in his thesis.

The Lohner-Porsche was the sensation of the Paris World Exhibition in April of 1900, and more than 300 of these motorcars were sold. A newer model had electric hub-motors on all four wheels, reaching speeds of 70 mph, 110 km/h, not bad in 1903. During the first decade of the 1900s General Electric in America and Siemens in Germany, both produced electric cars and commercial vehicles and also hybrids. The Paris Electric Car Company made various models between 1903 and 1907.

In 1906 Emil Jellinek of Mercedes fame (importing Benz’s cars into Austria) bought the patent for the Lohner-Porsche system. Jellinek was instrumental in the Austro-Daimler firm, hiring Porsche at the same time; Daimler then produced the “Electrique-Mixte”. (Gottlieb Daimler licensed his engine to the Austrian and English Daimler companies, but joined with Karl Benz only in 1926))

We do not know very much about patent and copyright infringements of that time, and accurate information about some of the automotive pioneers of that era is lacking, vague or contradictory. At more or less that time the name Pieper pops up. One report is that in 1900 a Belgian introduced a 3.5 hp “voiturette” with a small gasoline engine connected to an electric motor under the seat. When ‘cruising’ along, the electric motor acted as a generator, recharging the battery. When the vehicle went uphill, the coaxial motor boosted the engine. Between 1906 and 1912 the Belgian firm Auto-Mixte built commercial vehicles using the patent of the ‘Henri-Pieper system’.

Another report has an “American engineer H. Piper” apply for a patent for the same idea in 1905. Could it be that ‘Henri’ immigrated to America? My experience with the deplorable information from the same time span leads me to believe this is very likely. Does any reader have more insight (pun intended) into this?

Another oddity: A motor is an electrical device, but we call everything with an internal combustion engine (ICE) a motor-vehicle. Just a misnomer from the time when one third of all ”motor”-vehicles was steam driven, another third was propelled by an electric motor – before the “infernal consumption engine” silenced the quiet majority?

In Ontario, Canada, my adopted home, the Galt Motor Company introduced the Galt Gas Electric in 1914. A two cylinder two-stroke engine drove a 40 Volt, 90 Amp Westinghouse generator, a pure series hybrid. The last remaining one of these can be admired in a museum. In 1917 the Woods Dual Power car was made by a Chicago firm notable for producing electric cars. It used a four cylinder Continental engine coupled to an electric motor, but could not do better than 35 mph, or 56 km/h.

The availability of inexpensive petroleum fuels, improvements of internal combustion engines together with the electric starter and the advances Henry Ford brought about with the assembly line and the inexpensive Model T, caused a decline of steam and electric vehicles at about this time. The Owen Magnetic Model 60 Touring of 1921 was a noteworthy holdout, a proper hybrid with electric motors in each of the rear wheels. A gasoline engine powered a generator to produce the necessary current.

From around 1890 to 1920, there were more than 100 makers of electric cars in the U.S. and Canada, some of course producing no more than a handful of vehicles. The best known included the Baker Electric Company, Columbia Manufacturing, Detroit Electric, Electric Vehicle Company, Galt Motor Company, Milburn Wagon Company, Rauch & Lang, Riker Electric Motor Company of America, Studebaker, S.R. Bailey Co. and Woods Motor Company.

In these early pioneer days of the auto industry three forms of power-train were competing for public acceptance. Optimism ran high that storage batteries, electric ”accumulators”, would become more efficient, extending the range of the ‘silent servants’ as they were called. In a poll conducted at the first National Automobile Show in New York City, visitors favored electric as their first choice, followed closely be steam. Of 4,192 auto-buggies sold in 1900, 38% (1,595) were electric, 40% (1,681) steam and 22% (936) gasoline powered. Sales of electric motor vehicles peaked in 1912 with nearly 34,000. In addition, thousands of electric trucks and buses delivered goods and passengers. (Separate numbers for hybrid vehicles only are not available).

For readers eager to delve deep into the subject of HEV technology, follow this link, which deals with “Propulsion System Strategy”- from a half-day workshop on just one aspect of hybrids, by John M. Miller, PhD.

I hope this information helps us to realize that Hybrid Electric Vehicles are not a new, unproven way for the automobile industry to comply with public and government’s demands for a cleaner, greener way for the future, and to bring sustainable transportation to developed and developing countries.

The second half of ‘Hybrid History’ will offer insight into developments prior to Prius and Insight.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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1 Comment

  1. I don’t know what URI is. I thoroughly enjoyed HYBRID HISTORY Part1. I will be anxiosly waiting for Part2. I had no idea that Hybrid History went back that far. If only the right decision to use electric motors was made back then we could have avoided our current gasoline problems and the need for CAFE with all of its political gymnastics and cost. It’s ironic how the internal combustion engine won the contest in the early automotive history because gasoline was so cheap and now the ICE is losing out due to high costs. Larry Dranchak

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