PH Origins: Petrol-electric hybrids

Early internal combustion engines were, to say the least, predictably crude. The 462cc four-stroke engine Gottlieb Daimler fitted to his first automobile in 1886, for example, produced 1.1hp at 650rpm - and weighed 40kg.

Still, that then-almighty power output was enough to propel Daimler's four-wheeled carriage to a heady 10mph. While many were simply aghast at the terrifying speeds these early motorised carriages were capable of, and the threat they posed to innocent pedestrians, other issues were also becoming a concern.

Charles Duryea, an American engineer who founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1895, outlined the oft-cited criticisms against the new 'motor vehicles' in the same year. 'Time and again the motor vehicle has been condemned because it gives out a different odour than is given out by other things now in use,' he wrote in an 1895 copy of The Horseless Age, 'and being different it impresses the observer as very vile.

'Perhaps the most important objection is that of noise,' added Duryea. 'The average man seems to have set his mind upon an ideal vehicle which does not make any noise, and yet he is unable to point out such a vehicle.' Duryea also tackled other common points, such as reliability and concerns about horses being spooked by these strange new methods of transport - but, regardless, many retained what Duryea described as 'absurd objections against the new inventions of to-day.'

Electric cars were one possible way to circumvent public concerns. They were quieter, smoother, easier to drive and far easier to maintain - and they had no labour-intensive starting procedure or need for complex, unreliable gearboxes. The invention of the rechargeable lead-acid battery in 1859, by French physicist Gaston Planté, and other innovations spurred on electric car development; by the late 1800s, numerous low-volume electric cars were in circulation.

That said, the still-familiar issues of range and a lack of charging infrastructure made electric motoring problematic for some. The ideal solution, it seemed, would be to combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and battery assembly. The vehicle could run on quiet and clean battery power but, if longer distances were the order of the day, the engine could be fired up to top up the batteries or propel the car - ensuring ongoing mobility.

It was Swiss engineer Carlos Vellino and Spanish artillery captian Emilio de la Cuadra that were among the first to make the leap and produce a hybrid petrol-electric car. The 'La Cuadra' of 1899 was based on an earlier pure EV but additionally featured a 5hp engine that, when running, drove a dynamo to charge up the car's batteries. This configuration, today, would be recognised as a range extender - like the Chevrolet Volt, Vauxhall Ampera and BMW i3 REx.

German engineer Henri Pieper, who had emigrated to Belgium in 1859, was also developing a hybrid system. He specialised in weaponry and had established a substantial workshop that produced shotguns but, in 1897, the plant also began producing cars as the market started to boom.

Pieper took a different approach to that of La Cuadra, producing what we would now recognise as a 'mild' hybrid in 1899. His small 'voiturette' had an air-cooled engine that drove through an electric motor in a configuration Pieper called a 'mixed power set'.

When more power was required, the electric motor could be engaged to assist - or start - the 3.5hp engine; when coasting the electric motor would charge the batteries. A patent was applied for this set-up in 1905 and eventually granted in 1909.

Coachbuilder Lohner, which had been angling to get into this new, quieter motorised carriage field, had also encountered the problem of range - which made its electric carriages unsuitable for those considering longer trips.

Fortunately, for Lohner and its owner Jacob Lohner, the company had employed a 23-year-old engineer called Ferdinand Porsche. This young engineer, who had graduated from the Vienna Technical College, had taken considerable interest in electrical power and had developed a series of all-electric carriages.

The initial designs were reworked to include a petrol engine and, in 1900, Porsche presented the Lohner-Porsche 'Semper Vivus' - 'Always Alive'. The 1.7-tonne car featured two generators, driven by a pair of engines, and a pair of hub-mounted electric motors. Reputedly, its top speed was 22mph and its maximum range 124 miles - but its complexity made it impossible to produce in quantity.

Porsche persisted and developed the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, which featured a single front-mounted Daimler engine, a generator and a pair of hub-mounted electric motors. This proved far more manageable and reliable and, consequently, some 65 Lohner-Porsches are claimed to have been produced.

Others soon followed, such as the advanced Woods Motor Vehicle Company 'Dual Power' of 1911 - an expensive four-seat car that featured a 14hp 1.1-litre engine that drove the rear axle through an electric motor, like the Pieper set-up. It had a clutch but no gearbox and, like modern hybrids, could charge its own batteries and make use of regenerative braking to further top them up.

Alas, several developments soon put paid to all the work that had been done on both electric cars and hybrid vehicles alike. During the early 1900s, innovations such as electric starters and the silencer made petrol-powered cars far easier to live with and far less intrusive; the engines themselves also improved rapidly, becoming more reliable and efficient.

Ever-improving road networks also meant that drivers were venturing further and further from home - making the faster, more quickly refuelled petrol-powered cars far more desirable and suitable. Most prominently, the mass production of the likes of Henry Ford's affordable Model T in 1908 further reduced the appeal of the expensive and comparatively restrictive electric and hybrid cars.

Petrol-electric hybrids were far from finished, though, but it would take some time before interest in the technology was renewed - outside of a few niche prototypes, such as the General Motors XP-883 of 1969. Ultimately, it took ever-increasing concerns regarding environmental issues and energy supplies in the early 1990s to prompt manufacturers to once again consider hybrid technology.

The Toyota Prius, unveiled in 1995 in concept form and in 1997 in production form, was the first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid. The Honda Insight then arrived in 1999 and, by 2001, mild hybrids such as the Toyota Crown were also being offered. A diesel-electric hybrid even made it to the market in this era, in the form of the 1997 Audi Duo - of which admittedly few were built. Cleaner, quieter petrol-powered hybrids proved more appealing, though, so diesel hybrids were set to remain few and far between.

This time around, petrol-electric hybrid technology was here to stay. Tightening regulations and increasing fuel costs, along with spiralling emissions-based charging for inner-city motoring, continues to ramp up the demand and necessity for hybrids.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, for example, a total of 71,522 petrol-electric hybrids were registered in the UK in 2017 - a whopping 42.8 per cent increase on 2016's registration figures. Still a drop in the ocean given the 2,540,617 cars that were registered in the UK last year alone, but the growth alone signals the ongoing march of the now 120-year-old technology.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (7) Join the discussion on the forum

  • The Crack Fox 23 Jul 2018

    Very interesting and well-researched feature, thank you, PH smile

  • aeropilot 23 Jul 2018

    Porsche returned to the petrol-electric system (similar to a modern petrol-hybrid but without the storage batteries) during the war in his prototype offering for what eventually became the King Tiger tank, but his drivetrain proposals met with little enthusiasm at the time.

  • Mackofthejungle 24 Jul 2018

    So our oh-so-advanced society is achieving the same old st, but with touchscreens? Decrease functionality, reduce build costs and bump up the price because "future"... smile

    Interesting seeing what was going on 120 years ago. I wonder if we'll ever see a return to "local" car makers? I imagine we're all too conditioned to expect the world these days, but wouldn't it be fascinating if, instead of buying a Golf you could buy a something from the bloke down the road? With electric cars it's not like the technology is going to be difficult or complex.. I could absolutely see it happening.

    The ideas written about early on in this article are where the money should be going - make quiet cars. Quiet tyres, quiet drivetrains, quiet everything. The racket modern cars make, it's insane. Just standing next to a busy 30mph road.. The roar or tyres.. You can't have a conversation. Primitive rubbish.

  • Turbobanana 24 Jul 2018

    Mackofthejungle said:
    I imagine we're all too conditioned to expect the world these days, but wouldn't it be fascinating if, instead of buying a Golf you could buy a something from the bloke down the road?
    A really interesting concept, sadly doomed to failure while we all expect so much in our cars. If all we wanted was a covered, safe means of transportation (a bit like Gordon Murray's OX) then it might happen. If we all still want electric this, automatic that, ICE, "aggressive styling" and Sat Navs etc, any local initiative would be priced out of the market by development costs.

  • Daston 24 Jul 2018

    aeropilot said:
    Porsche returned to the petrol-electric system (similar to a modern petrol-hybrid but without the storage batteries) during the war in his prototype offering for what eventually became the King Tiger tank, but his drivetrain proposals met with little enthusiasm at the time.
    It was the Ferdinand that used his Hybrid system and only due to the JagdTiger taking too long to produce. They did also produce a few Tiger (P)'s which failed to get the original Tiger contract. Whilst the drive system was good, it was overly complicated and used a large amount of copper which they didn't have.

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