A Brief History of Hybrid Cars Gives a Sense of Deja Vu

If you think hybrid-electric vehicles are a 21st Century exclusive, think again. General Motors showed off (working!) hybrid prototypes in the 1960’s…

…and the technology was already more than 60 years old! Take a trip with me, into the forgotten history of hybrid cars, after the jump.

The first hybrid cars came along (obviously, perhaps?) at the turn of the century. Not the turn of this century, mind you – but at the turn of the last century. The 1900 model Lohner Porsche Mixte (below) was the first hybrid car offered for public sale.

The Mixte enjoyed a fair bit of success in its day, appearing at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair with a pair of Daimler-sourced ICE generators and having just broken several Austrian speed records.

Don’t think that Porsche’s Mixte used a conventional motor with battery-assist, either. The Mixte predicted the “revolutionary” Chevy Volt’s drivetrain over a hundred years before that car broke cover, with a combustion engine generating electricity to batteries, which then sent current to hub-mounted electric motors… which is considered a pretty slick achievement in the 21st century – and this car was built in the 19th!

As a gasoline infrastructure was phased in during the latter half of the 1920’s, though, it became less important to be able to charge vehicles at home – and the superior range and performance (sound familiar?) of the gasoline engine made EVs a tough sell – and this certainly remained true throughout the 1960’s – begging the question: “Why did GM produce a series of hybrid prototypes in the late 60’s if there was no market demand for electric vehicles?”

Answer: government mandate.

In 1966, the US Congress recommended (and nearly passed a bill requiring) increased use of electric cars for city driving in an effort to reduce visible smog in heavily congested cities (most notably, Los Angeles). In response, the big three began developing different technologies specifically aimed at reducing smog. Chrysler began pouring money into turbine cars, while GM responded with hybrids, like the 1969 XP 512 (below) and Opel Strir-lec hybrid at the start of this post.

Despite renewed interest in zero-emission electric vehicle tech and a flurry of new development dollars, the car’s batteries were still the technology’s Achilles’ heel, which is the reason GM turned to a hybrid powertrain both in 1969 (with the XP 512) and in 2009 (with the Volt). In both cases, GM engineers used a conventional ICE to power a generator, which would charge the car’s electric batteries as needed, increasing range to more practical (read: commercially acceptable) levels.

Costs were enormous, however, and 2 more things would happen after the 1969 fair in Paris to change the automotive perspective in ways that we are still, nearly 40 years later, trying to come to terms with as an industry.

The first was the Clean Air Act of 1970. The second was the 1973 oil crisis, which marked the first time many people even considered “running out of oil” a possibility… which may seem crazy to younger readers, but (and this is true) when I was growing up, people were worried about global cooling (really), so take that.

Anyway, the Clean Air Act sought to eliminate 95% of automotive emissions (think “visible” automotive emissions and you get the idea) by 1976.

Forced into action, then, GM built yet another hybrid concept car – this time using a 1972 Buick Skylark as a base.  The drivetrain was remarkably advanced, using a small Wankel rotary as a generator backing up a 20 hp electric motor.  The car topped out at 70 mph, but was shelved due to concerns about the body’s structural integrity (below).

If that “rotary as range-extender” deal sounds familiar, it should.  We covered a conceptually identical “innovation” from Mazda less than six weeks ago.

Eventually, the Buick hybrid project was considered impractical, but work continued at Toyota in Japan, with the company building a prototype hybrid off of their 1969 Sports 800 model.

Into the 80’s and 90’s, Audi’s series of Duo concept cars offered a look into the future, with the 1997 Duo III, which placing a (then-new) TDI diesel in parallel with a 29 hp electric motor and a front-wheel-drive transaxle. This would be the VW group’s first production hybrid, but only 60 units were sold.

Interestingly, the Duo III pioneered a layout nearly identical to the most significant modern production hybrid of all: the first-generation Toyota Prius (below).

The story of the Prius, of course, is the hybrid story you know – the one where Toyota “invents” the hybrid as a totally original idea, brings the car to market before anyone else, and steals the limelight, eventually turning the Prius badge into a luxury nameplate synonymous with the words “modern,” and “progressive.”

That isn’t meant to sound derisive, though – Toyota did what Porsche, GM, and Volkswagen failed to do before them, which was to successfully market a hybrid vehicle to a mainstream audience… no mean feat in 1997, with cheap gas and massive SUVs clogging the arterial roadways of America. Without Toyota’s efforts and successes, KERS would not have come to Formula 1, Porsche would not be pushing regenerative braking technologies, and (very likely) there would be no Nissan LEAF, no Chevy Volt, no VW Up!, no Tesla, no Fisker, and certainly no (yay!) Honda CR-Z… no “Jesus cars” at all, in fact.

SO, good on Toyota – but let’s give credit where credit is due, and thank everyone who helped along the way.

SOURCE: Motorpasion.


Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.