Over in FoMoCo land, Bill Ford’s crystal ball sees a future
of hybrids and hydrogen power, saying, “In 25 years, as many as 75 percent of
light vehicles produced could be hybrids with the rest powered by hydrogen.”
Now just about every manufacturer has a hybrid gasoline and
electric power somewhere it its model list, with Honda and Toyota at the
forefront. So have we really come up with something new to take us into Bill
Ford’s 25 years hence? While I do believe that hybrids are an important part
of the future, I have to emphatically disagree that this is something new.
The first hybrid, according to my research, was built in 1902
by the son of an Austrian tinsmith. His name was Ferdinand Porsche - yes the
same Porsche who designed vehicles for Daimler, Auto Union, made the Beetle and
finally gave birth to the line-up of some of the greatest sportscars ever seen,
the cars bearing his own name - the Porsche’s. It is now time to go back in
history, and the tale of Dr. Porsche and his involvement in the hybrid movement.
Ferdinand Porsche was born in 1875 in Mattersdorf, a village
close to Reichenberg, in what was then North Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia. The
young Porsche demonstrated excellent mechanical aptitude, for example wiring his
family home for electric light when he was just 15 years old. Despite his
father’s desire for him to become a tinsmith, at age 18 he was recommended for
a job in Vienna with Bela Egger (later Brown Boveri). In Vienna, he sneaked into
night classes at the Technical University, the only ‘formal’ engineering
education he ever obtained.
In 1898, he joined Jacob Lohner’s recently-formed
automobile company. This was Austria’s first production car company but Lohner
believed in electric cars and Porsche designed a car which had an electric motor
fitted to each front wheel hub. This was radical stuff and the Lohner-Porsche
was exhibited in the Paris Exposition of 1900 and attracted international
attention. This was, however, still an electric car, powered by heavy lead-acid
batteries. The hub motors had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who was just
25 years old at the time. His employer, Jacob Lohner, boasted to the press,
“He is very young, but he is a man with a big career before him. You will hear
of him again.” And how prophetic was that? By the way, the same basic motor
design was used to power the Apollo buggy which American astronauts drove on the
moon 69 years later.
Porsche was a sporting fanatic and spent many hours at the
drawing board to see where he could refine the design and in 1902 fitted one of
his electric hub motors to each wheel, producing the world’s first four wheel
Porsche then looked at the weight problem with the lead-acid
batteries and worked out that what he needed was a lightweight generator to
provide the electric current, rather than batteries, so he harnessed Daimler’s
and Panhard’s internal combustion engines to power the generators for the
wheel-mounted electric motors in a new technology that he called ‘System
Mixt.’ The system might have been ‘mixed’ but the results were not. More
speed records were won by his 4WD hybrid race car, European acclaim followed,
and in 1905 Porsche won the Poetting Prize as Austria’s most outstanding
During WW I, Porsche was directed towards designing equipment
for the war effort. One of his designs was the ‘Landwehr’, a train designed
for the road. The leading car, or engine, was powered by a Daimler gasoline
engine of 100 horsepower, linked to an electrical generator. In keeping with his
proven race car approach, all four wheels were equipped with an electric motor.
This progressive design became even more ahead of its time when Porsche decided
that all of the cars should be equipped with the same four wheel drive system,
with the electrical power supplied by the engine car through long cables.
The next hybrid was the C Train. It was a purely military
concept and was equipped with an 81 ton gun and four cars, each with eight wheel
electric hub drives, following the concept of the Landwehr train. The total
weight with cargo was in excess of 150 tons. That was some hybrid!
After these hybrid designs, Dr. Porsche became involved with
the VW, which returned to ‘conventional’ propulsion, even though he went
air-cooled and rear engined.
So should we just go electric? The answer is no. A growing
fleet of ominously silent General Motors electric cars are testament to this.
Dozens of the green, metallic blue and bright red futuristic vehicles are lined
up behind a chain-link fence at the edge of a freight rail line in Van Nuys, as
the world’s largest automaker pulled the plug on a vehicle it heralded, only a
few years ago, as ‘the car of the future.’
Dr. Porsche also saw that pure electric vehicles were not the
way to go over 100 years ago and built the hybrids. It is a pity that the
automakers did not look into history a little more!