The mother of Prius, and other electric car stories from long ago

Toyota Prius has been the last word in hybrids for exactly 20 years now. The current model claims 54 miles per gallon — roughly 23 kilometres per litre — in city use. How does a car that is almost as big as a @Toyota Corolla and weighs about 1,400 kilos, beat much smaller and lighter cars like Suzuki Alto in mileage?

It’s all down to the gasoline-electric hybrid system, where all the low-speed, stop-and-start work gets done on the electric motor, and the petrol engine is run at optimum (fuel-efficient) revs, whether to charge the batteries or do the hauling alone.

But the idea of hybrid engines was not born with the Prius. They were first made at the end of the 19th century, and this page gives the credit to Dr Ferdinand Porsche, whose illustrious surname is no longer associated with middle-age concerns like mileage.

The idea persisted for at least a decade after the demise of the Porsche hybrid, as this 1913 report from America shows:

“H. Ward Leonard of Bronxville, N. Y., is the holder of patent number 1,043,698 — that of an electrically propelled vehicle. By means of a gasoline engine he develops upon the vehicle itself the power making for the propulsion of the vehicle. Through dynamos this power is transformed into electric energy — the energy supplied to propelling motors at a degree of voltage and current as to give the vehicle the speed desired. The invention
also allows of the vehicle’s being held stationary on either an up or down grade, and without brakes.

An overzealous salesman

E. P. McDonald was a car salesman in Chicago entrusted the job of convincing actress Rita Stanwood to buy a 1913 Detroit Electric coupe. Stanwood wanted a car for hilly country, and McDonald had to prove to her that the car wasn’t shy of slopes. How did he do it?

He “created a sensation for the pedestrians on Michigan Avenue and the guests of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago by suddenly leaving the throng of vehicles in the thoroughfare and bumping up the steps of the equestrian
statue of General John A. Logan on the lake front.”

General John Logan Memorial (Photo: Anahit Tadevosyan); McDonald drove the car up these steps

Did Stanwood buy the car? The report does not say, but she might have, considering it “mounted the steep incline, 35 feet high, and descended in safety.”

Ordering a car from a ship

C E Hansen, a Los Angeles businessman who had been on a holiday to Europe with his wife, was returning alone on the Mauretania, leaving her to explore London for a few more weeks. Perhaps the relief and joy at being alone for some days stirred inside him a wish to please her with the gift of a car. So, Hansen wired an order for a Hupp-Yeats electric car from the steamer, not knowing the company was battling rumors of a shutdown at the time.

G N Jordon, branch manager of the Hupp-Yeats car dealership in Los Angeles was a wireless hobbyist himself, so the local wireless operator relayed Hansen’s message to him. Jordan thus became perhaps the first automobile salesman to receive an order from a ship at home.

Batteries built like a tank

Here’s a 1913 advertisement for Edison car batteries. On March 23, 1913, a cyclone in Omaha, Nebraska, brought “tonnes of bricks and debris” down on an electric car belonging to Omaha Electric Light and Power Company inside the Omaha Electric Garage. The car was totalled, as you can see — “the metal hood was crushed in and battery short-circuited, burning off jumpers” — but tests showed each and every cell of the battery was fine. A journalist reported: “even the electrolyte was at practically its normal gauge. This is but one example of the sturdiness of modern electric vehicle equipment.”

edison battery

If you liked this story, you could follow this blog for many more to come about electric vehicles long ago.


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