What Is the History of Hybrid Cars?

By: Christopher Lampton  | 

The First Hybrid Car

Porsche Chief Engineer, Wolfgang Dürheimer, explains to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that the Lohner-Porsche was the first advanced electric car and the technological star of the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Courtesy of Porsche Cars North America

The first hybrid car wasn't the Toyota Prius nor was it invented in the 1990s or 2000s. In fact, it dates back to the early 20th century. Still, the first hybrid car was brought into existence for reasons that will be familiar to those living in the 21st century: Internal combustion engines were producing too much foul-smelling pollution.

The first hybrid car was partly the brainchild of a Viennese coach builder named Jacob Lohner, who felt that gas-driven cars were too noisy and smelly. To find a solution to this problem, Lohner turned to a young Austrian engineer named Ferdinand Porsche. In 1896, when he was just 21 years old, Porsche invented the electric wheel-hub motor, a battery-operated motor that actually fit inside the hub of a wheel. Lohner asked Porsche to combine his in-wheel motors with one of Lohner's coaches. The result was the Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil. This vehicle was first shown to the general public at the Paris Exposition of 1900.


Although initially a purely electric vehicle, the Elektromobil soon became history's first hybrid. Faced with the problem of keeping the Elektromobil's batteries charged, Porsche added an internal combustion engine that ran a generator, making the Elektromobil the first vehicle to combine an electric motor with a gasoline-powered engine. This gas-electric hybrid could achieve a top speed of 23 mph (37 km/h). The first person to buy an Elektromobil was E.W. Hart of Luton, England, who requested that Porsche put motors on all four wheels. Porsche complied, and the Elektromobil became not only the first hybrid but a pioneering four-wheel-drive vehicle, too. The Elektromobil didn't introduce the concept of green driving — in fact, there had been all-electric cars for several decades by the time it debuted — but it did show how electricity and gasoline could be used together for increased fuel efficiency.

Ultimately Lohner and Porsche sold about 300 Elektromobils and the idea of a gas-electric hybrid faded into history for many years. Porsche became better known for founding the company known today as Porsche SE and the designer of the original Volkswagen Beetle.

The idea of the gas-electric hybrid did actually resurface several times over the following century, but it remained for Toyota to turn it into a viable enterprise with the Prius, which was introduced in Japan in 1997 and outside Japan in 2001. By 2008 Toyota had sold one million Priuses worldwide. The Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil, by contrast, has been forgotten by the general public, though several survive and occasionally show up at antique auto shows. Without the Elektromobil the Prius would probably still exist, but Porsche and Lohner deserve credit for having an idea that was nearly 100 years ahead of its time.