1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid Concept Car

Image Gallery: Concept Cars The 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car had a fiberglass body to offset the weight of the 12 car-type batteries mounted over the rear axle. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The simple idea behind the 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car was essentially this: If two heads are better than one, why not a car with two power sources?

This unique "best of both worlds" gasoline/electric hybrid was devised around 1980 by Briggs & Stratton, the famous and prolific builder of small engines for everything from washing machines to lawn mowers.

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Like so many modern motoring ideas, the Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car wasn't entirely new. Electric power had flourished in the early years of "automobiling" before losing out to the internal-combustion engine, which was noisy and emitted noxious fumes but delivered far more power for its size and weight than any battery or electric motor.

The internal-combustion engine also won out for being more "portable" and thus far better suited to automobiles. Electrics have to be recharged, usually quite often, and in early 20th-century America that effectively limited one's driving to urban areas, as widespread rural electrification was still some years off.

Still, several companies combined electric and gasoline propulsion in one vehicle. Krieger in France, for example, built a brougham in 1904 driven by a traction motor operating off batteries that were kept charged by a small gas-run generator.

In 1917 came the aptly named Woods Dual Power Coupe, an American design with the world's first true hybrid drive (an electric motor and four-cylinder Continental gasoline engine).

But these and other efforts were rendered dead ends by technical limitations of the time, plus a seemingly inexhaustible supply of affordable gasoline -- and skies that were still clear.

By the 1960s, though, automobiles had multiplied far beyond what anyone could have imagined in the old days, creating enormous air pollution in cities from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Besides laws to clean up gas engines, the growing vehicle smog problem renewed interest in electric power, which had been relegated over the years to such things as golf carts and small urban delivery trucks.

A further impetus came with the first "energy crisis" of 1973-1974, which showed Americans that the world's fossil fuel resources might not be limitless after all.

With that, Washington stepped up efforts to encourage development of practical power alternatives for cars, awarding lavish cash grants to spur better batteries for a new generation of electrics, I-C engines that could run on fuels other than gasoline, and exploration of various power combinations.

By the mid-1970s, hybrid design loomed as the most technically expedient and cost-effective path to tomorrow's low-pollution high-mileage dream car, and Department of Energy funds prompted all kinds of proposals.

Chrysler and General Electric, for example, teamed up on a $9 million project that culminated in another 1980 prototype called ETV-1. A conventional-looking four-door hatch-back, this carried an 80-horsepower four-cylinder gas engine and a 40-horsepower electric motor that could be used together or separately. The motor ran on 10 car batteries that could be recharged by the gas engine, by braking, or by simply plugging into a wall outlet.

Briggs & Stratton got in on the act by developing the Hybrid concept car in 1980. Learn more about it on the next page.

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1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid Concept Car Development

The Hybrid's six-wheel chassis was borrowed from a small electric van. The extra set of rearmost wheels was need to help support the weight of the batteries mounted above.
The Hybrid's six-wheel chassis was borrowed from a small electric van. The extra set of rearmost wheels was need to help support the weight of the batteries mounted above.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car development costs were relatively low. The $250,000 cost was similar to what it cost other manufacturers to create hybrid concept cars. But the 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car incorporated some novel twists. Its gas engine, for instance, was a small 18-horsepower air-cooled twin that B&S had just introduced and wanted to showcase.

Then there was the chassis. Project engineer Bob Harkness, who was also vice-president of B&S research and development, saved time and money with the prototype by starting with a six-wheel platform from a small delivery van made by Marathon Electric Vehicles of Quebec, Canada.

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Only the forward pair of rear wheels was driven; the ones behind were a "trailer" for almost 1,000 pounds of batteries, located just below a shallow luggage hold. These 12 batteries powered a small eight-horsepower Baldor electric motor that was coupled to the up-front gas engine via a Borg-Warner "Duo-Cam" automatic clutch. This arrangement allowed the powerplants to be used alone or in tandem (as selected by a simple dash-board knob), but there was no provision for "on-the-fly" charging.

Power was taken rearward via a conventional four-speed manual transmission from a Ford Pinto, which also donated drive axle, rack-and-pinion steering gear, and steering column.

Harkness liked the six-wheeler concept because it allowed a hindmost-wheel design whereby a depleted battery pack could be rolled right out and a freshly charged one rolled in. But besides resolving this and other practical engineering issues, Briggs & Stratton wanted its hybrid to deliver maximum mileage in any power mode without looking like an economy car.

Styling for the 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid was entrusted to Kip Stevens, son of famous Milwaukee-based designer Brooks Stevens of Excalibur fame. The result was indeed stylish despite the inherent awkwardness of the six-wheel chassis.

Taking the windshield and dashboard of an early Volkswagen Scirocco, Kip crafted a sporty hatchback coupe in the contemporary vein with a jazzy interior featuring four-spoke steering wheel, trip computer, and genuine Recaro buckets.

There was also a rear seat, upholstered to match the fronts, but the slim hard bench afforded scant room because of the bulky battery pack behind and a tidy wheelbase of only 86 inches to the drive axle (a more generous 112 to the third).

Showing electric power was nothing new in the automotive world, Briggs and Stratton posed its Hybrid concept car with an early-1900s electric car.
Showing electric power was nothing new in the automotive world, Briggs and Stratton posed its Hybrid concept car with an early-1900s electric car.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

To help compensate for battery mass, Stevens rendered the body in fire-retardant fiberglass. For the same reason, interior panels were made of light but strong Alucobond laminate, and all "glass" save the windshield was actually DuPont SAR (super-abrasion-resistant) Lucite.

Curb weight thus ended up at a reasonable 3,200 pounds, and Stevens minimized any visual heaviness by finishing the lower third of the body in slimming black, the rest in bright yellow.

But could it move? And move fast? See the next section for details on Hybrid performance.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid Concept Car Performance

The 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car was powered by an 18-horsepower Briggs & Stratton two-cylinder engine and small electric motor.
The 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car was powered by an 18-horsepower Briggs & Stratton two-cylinder engine and small electric motor.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

To the few who got an opportunity to drive it,1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car performance was nothing to shout about. Car and Driver was moved to describe the 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid concept car as the "six-wheeled, two-engined, yellow-plastic people mover." But the car didn't move editor Don Sherman very much -- or very quickly.

The Briggs & Stratton prototype employed a hybrid drive comprising an air-cooled gas-fired two-cylinder engine, made by B&S, and an equally small Baldor electric motor. Both lived up front along with ancillary mechanicals.

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Observed top speed was only 50 mph in either mode, 68 mph combined. Acceleration was just as tepid: 0-40 mph, for instance, took well over a minute on the little gas engine alone, 36.4 seconds with the torquier electric motor (which could produce up to 20 horsepower in brief spurts), and 21.9 seconds in hybrid mode. "At that rate," said Sherman, "merging onto a busy expressway would be heart-stopping."

But forget freeways. The B&S Hybrid was conceived as a surface-street runabout that would cost peanuts to run and hardly smoke up the atmosphere.

Though emissions from the gas engine were apparently neither controlled nor measured, economy was outstanding. B&S claimed 25-52 mpg in gas-only mode and said that the recommended use of the two powerplants -- electric to accelerate, gas engine for cruising -- was calculated to give up to 85 mpg. However, as Sherman noted, the "pure-electric range" was only 30 to 60 miles and a deep recharge took 6 to 8 hours.

Then again, this was only an experiment in high economy born of fears that gasoline would become far more scarce and costly -- if not today, then tomorrow. It was also something of a trial in how little raw power a future car might be able to get away with and still be practical.

Not that Briggs & Stratton ever intended to enter the car business, though it would have doubtless gladly welcomed a Ford or General Motors building hybrids in the millions -- and paying $643 apiece for little air-cooled B&S twins to power them. Of course, the electric motor was sold separately and batteries were not included.

The 1980 B&S Hybrid concept car put a gas engine in line with an electric motor and a rear battery pack, not unlike today's gas-electric hybrid cars.
The 1980 B&S Hybrid concept car put a gas engine in line with an electric motor and a rear battery pack, not unlike today's gas-electric hybrid cars.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though Car and Driver's Don Sherman derisively likened the B&S Hybrid to "what you get when you mate a garden tractor with a golf cart," he felt its concept held genuine promise.

As he wrote in late 1980, it had the makings of a new Citroën 2CV "[with] the same . . . B&S engine, front-wheel drive, two axles, Kip Stevens bodywork, a carbon-fiber chassis and a 1200-pound curb weight. It should sell for $3000 (or less) [contemporary dollars] and deliver 50 mpg. The Ace Hardware store could sell a bunch of 'em."

Then again, maybe not. Remember the Crosley or the Allstate? Case closed.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: