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History of the Hybrid Car

History of the Hybrid Car

By Jeff Youngs, August 10, 2012
According to, it was none other than Dr. Ferdinand Porsche who built the first car to combine an internal-combustion engine with electric motors. The car, which was constructed in 1898, featured a gasoline engine that was used to power a generator that fed four electric motors, one per wheel hub. The car's range was 40 miles.

The closest correlating model to Dr. Porsche's original hybrid would be the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt is an electric car that can be recharged using a household outlet. When the car's rechargeable battery reaches a minimum state of charge, a gasoline engine starts and serves as a power source for a generator, which is then used to power the front wheels with electricity.

Shortly after Dr. Porsche introduced the first hybrid, the Electric Vehicle Company, an American automaker, introduced two hybrid models at the 1899 Paris Auto Salon. Next, Belgian automaker Pieper debuted a car with a 3.5-horsepower gasoline engine that was assisted by an electric motor when traveling up an incline. Within years of the Pieper's debut, an American inventor (coincidentally named Piper) filed a patent for a hybrid propulsion system employing an electric assist motor and a gasoline engine, capable of reaching a top speed of 25 mph.

By 1905, however, Henry Ford had begun mass-producing inexpensive cars with gasoline engines, hammering the first nails into the coffin of the early hybrid models. Several automakers continued to try and perfect the gas/electric hybrid, for both commercial- and private-vehicle applications, but by 1920 it was clear that the future belonged to the internal-combustion gasoline engine.

Fast-forward to 1965, when the U.S. Congress began introducing bills designed to foster exploration of electric vehicles as a way to reduce air pollution. Auto supplier TRW by 1970 was first to develop a practical hybrid solution, and General Motors had also built a test car that used an electric-assist motor at low speeds and a smaller-displacement gasoline engine at higher speeds.

The Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s spurred further development of modern hybrids. Big companies and individual entrepreneurs successfully developed and tested gas/electric hybrids throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Toyota.

Commonly considered to be the company that popularized hybrids, Toyota had its first hybrid prototype on the road in 1976. Two decades later, the first Prius was introduced to the Japanese market in 1997, the same year that Audi introduced the Audi Duo, a hybrid based on the A4 Avant, to the European market.

Though Audi and Toyota mass-marketed the first modern gas/electric hybrids in Europe and Asia, it was Honda that brought hybrid technology to Americans with the introduction of the 1999 Insight. A year later, the Toyota Prius went on sale in the U.S.

Today, most automakers have a hybrid model for sale, each employing variations of the basic premise of an electric motor assisting a gasoline internal-combustion engine, an idea first developed in the late 19th Century. Starting now, and in the years to come, the next-generation of hybrid models, called plug-in hybrids, will arrive. Furthermore, the Chevy Volt is already exploring the future beyond the plug-in hybrid by incorporating ideas conceived by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche when he was still a young man tinkering with cars in Germany.

Learn about the advantages of hybrid cars.
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