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Prescient Porsche

Ferdinand Porsche demonstrated gas-electric hybrids at the turn of the 20th century.
June 1, 2004

With major carmakers these days unveiling hybrid vehicles that combine the power of internal combustion with the efficiency of electric motors, it’s natural to assume the technology is a recent twist on the electric car. The truth is that both electrics and hybrids trace their roots to the dawn of the auto industry. Skeptics who suspect that “environmentally friendly” cars must yield underwhelming performance may be surprised to learn that these vehicles were pioneered by a man whose name would become synonymous with sporty racers: Ferdinand Porsche. The renowned engineer’s first car was an “electromobile,” and it set the stage for hybrids today.

At the turn of the 20th century, before gasoline cars dominated transportation, they were detested for their noise and stinking fumes. Electrics were a quiet, odorless alternative, with a power source associated with modern wonders, thanks to inventors such as Thomas Edison. One young electricity buff was the mechanically precocious Porsche. Growing up in rural Austria, Porsche baffled his parents with his homegrown experiments with lamps and telephones.

At age 23, while working for an electrical-equipment firm, Porsche was recruited by Jakob Lohner, a carriage maker who had recently begun to dabble in automobiles. Porsche kicked off his auto career with an idea for simplifying the drive mechanisms of the day. He installed electric motors in each of a car’s front wheel hubs, eliminating the shafts, gears, and chains needed for ordinary transmission systems. The Lohner-Porsche auto debuted at the 1900 Paris Exposition, taking the event’s Grand Prix. Over the next couple years, Porsche would win both races and wide acclaim with his car.

But even before his automobile took center stage in Paris, Porsche recognized the weaknesses of electrics. The weight and limited storage capacity of the batteries severely restricted the cars’ range. Still, Porsche didn’t want to abandon the benefits of his hub-motor design. After the exposition, he designed a car that used an internal-combustion engine to drive a generator, which in turn supplied electricity to the two hub motors. This compromise solved the range problem, and the transmission system was still relatively quiet, smooth, and reliable.

Porsche incorporated his “mixed” propulsion into a few later vehicles, but it would be a century before manufacturers embraced the hybrid concept.

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