Hybrid History, Part Two: After the 1920s

By Sam Boni


Hybrid History Part One looked at HEVs from the 1890s to the 1920s. At that time, one of the automotive world’s unsung pioneers, Sir Harry Ricardo, had started to literally look inside running internal combustion engines (ICE), to understand and improve their function and behavior. The electric starter had uncomplicated automobiles into a ‘touch and go’ convenient conveyance; the majority – electric-motor cars- still needed heavy rechargeable batteries, and steam cars needed firing up. So, the ICE age was upon us, and only sporadic attempts at electrification of automobiles were attempted until 1965.

Another interesting hybrid development worth mentioning had happened before 1920. It literally opened up new ways of driving, namely off-road. Again, Ferdinand Porsche’s creative mind came up with the concept of driving several vehicles from a single power unit, called a Land Train. The leading car, or engine, was powered by a Daimler gasoline engine of 100 horsepower, linked to an electrical generator which powered several self-propelled trailers, each equipped with an electric motor on all four wheels. Each trailer could be de-coupled and ‘driven’ and steered individually, drawing power via a cable connected to the traction unit. This allowed the train to negotiate weak bridges, one trailer at a time, and to be maneuvered in the tightest of spaces.

Long after World War II, when the pent up demand for new cars was being met, did the automotive industry think about ways to reduce the air pollution that was beginning to be troublesome, especially in California. Realizing this, the United States’ Congress introduced the first Bills in 1966, aimed at reducing pollution.
In 1965 General Motors experimented with a hybrid-vehicle, code named GM 512. It had a two cylinder engine and a combination of batteries. The very lightweight experimental car ran entirely on electric power up to ten or twelve miles per hour. Above that speed it ran on gasoline, but could only reach 40 miles per hour. It did not get further development and little information is available.

The Clean Air Act became federal law in the United States of America in 1970. It requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop and enforce regulations to protect the general public from exposure to airborne contaminants that are known to be hazardous to human health. The Act became a key control on automotive research and development of future vehicles. The Act has been amended over the years to stipulate specific actions.

In 1971 Amory Lovins, another inconspicuous automotive pioneer in modern times, and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute economic think-tank, began his crusade to change the industry by promoting the idea of the “Hypercar”, a safer, light-weight alternative-fueled vehicle. His story, closely related to today’s hybrids, will be the topic for another article.

Suddenly, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 changed automotive thinking. The increased cost of fuel spurred research and development of more economical vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy ran tests on electric and hybrid vehicles proposed by various manufacturers, including a hybrid known as the “VW Taxi”. The Taxi, which used a parallel hybrid configuration allowing flexible switching between the gasoline engine and electric motor, logged over 8,000 miles on the road, and was shown throughout Europe and the United States. I remember seeing a vehicle with “Voltswagen” emblazoned on it. VW also hybridized one of the early Golf / Rabbit models.

It takes five to seven years to develop a new model of any car or truck. To develop a new technology takes much more time, as is evident from present HEVs and fuel cell vehicles (FCV). Hybrid Vehicle technology gained momentum, and the results are showing up in today’s showrooms and streets. The 1970s were the time when computers were first used to control the emissions from internal combustion engines, by regulating fuel delivery, ignition timing and exhaust-gas after-treatment.

In 1975 the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration began a program to advance hybrid technology. During that year AM General sold 352 electric-hybrid vans to the US Postal Service for short-run mail delivery. One year later, Congress passed the ‘Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976’. The law’s purpose was to work with industry to improve batteries, motors, controllers and other hybrid-electric components. It took more than a decade to improve this technology, assisted by NASA’s work to bring computers to a new level of efficiency and reliability.

Chrysler, often on the leading edge in style and technology, designed and built a hybrid-powered liquid natural gas fueled racing car in the early ‘90s, with an eye to entering the car in 1995 races. The goal was to gather information and learn about this new way of using alternative fuels and various hybrid concepts. The ‘Patriot’ race car used a “combination of liquid natural gas (LNG)-fueled turbo alternators [?], carbon-fiber flywheel energy storage and a water-cooled electric traction motor to drive the rear wheels. The low-speed turbo alternator [?] system reaches speeds of 60,000 rpm, while the high-speed unit operates at 100,000 rpm.”

A separate high-speed flywheel in the Patriot generated additional power. All the electricity was controlled by a computer that both – quoting once more – “delegated which power source, turbines, or flywheel, to draw from” and then directed that power to the water cooled motor driving the wheels. “In all, the turbines and flywheel produced about one megawatt of energy, which was how the Patriot was expected to reach speeds approaching 200 mph”. Engineering Chief Francois Castaing later commented, “We’ve learned a lot about hybrid technology at Chrysler, and that we did not race the car doesn’t mean we failed.”
Because of California’s topography and high vehicle density, pollution has practically forced it to implement the most stringent air regulation. The state mandated that automobile manufacturers to sell a fixed percentage of Zero Emission Vehicles. A small selection of all-electric cars from the big automakers—including Honda’s EV Plus, GM’s EV1 and S-10 electric pickup, a Ford Ranger pickup, and Toyota’s RAV4 EV—were introduced in California. Within a few years, the enthusiasm dropped, because of their limited range and necessity to be plugged in. This is true for all-electric vehicles only, but as most people already know, hybrid electric vehicles never need plugging in.

It’s not only the USA that suffers from pollution; London’s notorious fog has turned to smog, forcing a partial vehicle ban. The famous London Taxis are taking steps to alleviate that problem by using hybrid taxis.

In 1992, the Toyota Motor Corporation announced the “Earth Charter”, a document outlining goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest emissions possible. The Prius (whose name means, “to go before, or being ahead”) went on sale in Japan in 1997. Toyota caught the rest of the world by surprise with hybrid-electric technology. North America still tried to improve electric cars, and Europe was having success with nearly 50% of new cars being frugal Diesels, which emit less carbon dioxide than do gasoline engines.

The Insight from Honda came in 1999, winning numerous awards with its EPA mileage ratings of 61 mpg city and 65mpg highway (4.6 & 4.3 liters /100km) Ford released the Escape Hybrid, the first American hybrid and the first SUV hybrid in 2004. Its sibling, the Mercury Mariner, went into production in late 2005. In the meantime, several other Japanese hybrids have been introduced. By 2008, around 20 models from several manufacturers are on the market.

In the meantime, hybrid-electric buses are transporting millions of passengers in cities worldwide, spreading the advantages of green technology, as this one in New York City.

Surprise, surprise! These “new” hybrid-electric vehicles are as old as the automobiles itself – computer power and very complex software programs are just now giving this old technology new potential – and at a time when it’s very much needed.

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. I don’t know what URI stands for. Hybrid History Part two provided more recent Hybrid information that readers were already familiar with but it’s always useful to review it. Part one provided early Hybrid information that few people knew about and it was enlightening. I’m tempted to suggest to T. Boone Pickens that he use a hybrid system with the natural gas fueled engine to power those Tractor Trailers. Larry Dranchak

  2. I think it should be URL (typo?)
    URL is your website address – if you have one-
    It stands for Uniform (nee Universal) Resource Locator

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