It seems as though the history of automobiles has been explosive, if you will. Many of the inventors and titans in the automobile industry are known for progressing the technology, sales, and production line of gas-powered vehicles.
After the transition from steam to gas-powered engines, cars became a more viable and affordable form of transportation.
When we think of hybrid cars, we think of modern hybridized versions of the Accord, Camry, Elantra, or Prius, but surprisingly, the history of the hybrid car goes back a lot farther than you might think. So, just when was the first hybrid car made?
The first hybrid car, built by engineer Ferdinand Porsche in 1899, was the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte, which used a gas engine to supply power to an electric motor that drove the car’s front wheels.
There are a lot of interesting factors that influenced the creation and design of the first hybrid car, as well as how its influence has spread over the years.
The rest of this article will explore the history of the hybrid vehicle and talk about how its legacy has impacted recognizable hybrid vehicles today.
The System Lohner-Porsche Mixte
The first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, System Lohner-Porsche was a two-wheel drive vehicle with two front-wheel hub-mounted motors. These motors allowed for an efficient, low-friction drivetrain.
The announcement of the Mixte prototype caused quite a buzz in the press across Euorpe, and Porche would see himself in the limelight when the Jacob Lohner factory he worked for was tasked with customizing the System Lohner-Porsche for coachbuilder E.W. Hart.
Hart wanted some difficult customizations, namely a four-wheel drive hybrid vehicle that could hold four passengers. Porsche knuckled down and got to work, amazingly finishing the momentous task on time.
All told, the vehicle weighed over 8000 pounds, with the four gargantuan electric motors comprising almost 1300 pounds.
Despite the success of this high-profile custom job, the release of the Mixte to consumers proved to be ill-timed.
While it gained some traction, selling over 300 units, Henry Ford’s much cheaper gas-powered cars arriving on the scene just five years later would leave the Mixte trailing in popularity.
Compared to the competition, the Mixte was much more expensive and didn’t have as much power as its gas-powered rival. The drivetrain technology, however, still made the idea of a hybrid vehicle worth pursuing to the Lohner company.
Porsche, supported by Lohner, entered a race put on by the Automotive club of Britain and Ireland in 1900. While the vehicle was heavy and unruly on the brutal muddy course, Porsche still managed to make it 34 miles despite multiple tire blowouts.
Despite the high price making the vehicle impractical for most consumers, Lohner saw the value in the idea and applied the drivetrain technology to larger vehicles.
From rear-drive buses in Berlin to front-drive fire engines in Austria, customized hybrid vehicles using the saw use in the commercial sector, and the Lohner company even made some hybrids for royalty in Austria, Norway, and Sweden.
Porsche would also continue to race with Lohner’s support, earning victory in several motorsport events and the 1905 Potting Prize as Austria’s most outstanding automotive engineer.
Revitalization of Hybrids in the U.S.
In the ‘60s, the U.S. government tried to incentivize its citizenry to use electric vehicles as a way to prevent air pollution; however, popular support for electric vehicles and hybrids would only hit home when the Arab oil embargo of 1973 made gas prices skyrocket.
Seeing a growing opportunity to capitalize on a new market, automobile manufacturers spent billions on the research and development of hybrid and electric vehicles, and while some ideas were brought to the table, they faced the same issue as the original System Lohner-Porsche Mixte― too expensive and not powerful enough.
Try as they might, manufacturers just couldn’t capture the public interest in hybrid or electric vehicles. That is, until the 1997 Toyota Prius was launched in Japan, becoming the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car.
The hybrid drivetrain, which combined an internal combustion engine with an electric motor, was touted as one of the cleanest cars of its time with regard to carbon emissions.
Perhaps the vehicles impressive stats along with a growing concern for the environment were influential in making the Prius so popular.
Another popular successor to the System Lohner-Porsche Mixte was the Honda Insight, which was the first hybrid vehicle available in North America.
With incredible milage per gallon, the Insight was dubbed one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles of its day.
At a time when gas guzzlers dominated the market and (you guessed it) the cost of fueling up was high, the 1999 Honda Insight was designed to provide better fuel economy than any of its competitors.
Better still, the vehicle was outfitted with an idle-stop feature that would kill the engine during traffic stops, reducing gas pollution even more.
The history of hybrid vehicles has always been touch and go. Timing, it seems, is everything when it comes to catching the public eye.
Ferdinand Porsche, despite having no higher education in engineering, managed to revolutionize the idea of a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle that had an efficient, low-friction drivetrain technology.
The timing of the invention, however, proved unfortunate due to the incoming assembly-line gas-powered vehicles that would take the world by storm in the early 1900s.
Despite the hybrids only seeing use in larger vehicles throughout the first half of the 20th century, the true value of hybrid vehicles would only be realized at the start of the new millennia, with vehicles like the Prius and Insight capitalizing on the concept of an internal combustion engine paired with an electric motor to create a low-impact, high-mileage car.
At a time of uncertainty with gas prices and oil embargoes as well as an increased desire to protect the planet, hybrid vehicles were revitalized and given new life.
Today, many of us recognize the value and merit behind hybrid and electric vehicles, but perhaps few people know just how long the history of these vehicles truly is.