Battery-Driven Hybrid Vehicles Have Been Around Since 1901

What can motorcycling learn from Ferdinand Porsche’s experiments with electricity?

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Technical Editor Kevin Cameron shares his wealth of motorcycle knowledge, experiences, insights, history, and much more.Cycle World

Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) was building hybrid electric cars in 1901, with electric motors in the front wheel hubs. His designs were built in Austria by Lohner, originally a maker of coaches. Earlier, Lohner had built pure electric cars powered by Porsche's own design of an in-hub motor, drawing upon 300 amp-hours of energy stored in 905 pounds of two-volt "Titan" cells.

To increase driving range, Porsche added a range extender in the form of two 3 1/2-hp de Dion gasoline engines driving generators. In cruise, power came from the extenders, but for hills or extra acceleration, battery power provided a boost. People liked the quiet smoothness of electric power; no clutch to judder and no clash of gear-changing. To further ease driving, Porsche added a torque-sensing throttle system.

People liked the quiet smoothness of electric power: no clutch to judder, and no clash of gear-changing. To further ease driving, Porsche added a torque-sensing throttle system.

Next, Porsche removed some of the weight of batteries carried and added a more capable range extender in the form of a 25-hp 5.5-liter piston engine from Daimler of Austria. This was the "mixte" hybrid propulsion system.

By 1907, it was clear that the 255-lb. weight of each of Porsche’s motor wheels shortened the life of the tires of that time, and the recession of 1908 reduced the appeal of the mixte. Porsche now turned his versatile talents to the internal-combustion engine, with history-making results. That was the last of the Lohner-Porsche mixte hybrids.

Applications for Military Use

During World War I, Porsche saw another application for electric power in moving military road trains over roads that afforded too little traction for a single "tractor," but which would be easy if every car in the train had its own electric motor, powered by a 150-hp 20-liter internal-combustion six in the forward unit, driving a generator. He devised a steering system to allow his “A-Zug” tractor trains to snake their way through village streets or even to back up. His B-Train version could also be made rail-capable in a four-hour conversion process.

A more difficult problem was to provide over-the-road mobility for the Central Powers’ 420mm (16.5 inch) Skoda mortar. Coming right up! Porsche’s solution was his C-Train, comprising five tractor units, each of whose trailers had eight electrically driven wheels. By distributing the required tractive force over many wheels, the 53-ton apparatus was made road-mobile.

Combustion-electric power persists in our own time in the form of the thousands of diesel-electric locomotives on US railroads. Try to imagine using a friction clutch to start a 10,000-ton train. But with electric power, starting is easy. Similarly, US submarines of WW II were diesel-electric. Propellers were driven at all times by electric motors, even when the diesels were operating on the surface. This was because such lightweight diesels had to operate at constant safe rpm to protect their twisty crankshafts from torsional vibration that would destroy them in a few minutes’ operation at other speeds. Power to the props could come either from generators coupled to the diesels or from the tons of batteries located beneath the deck plates—hybrids at sea.


The value of electric motors in making distributed power possible has recently been realized in an airplane capable of very low-speed takeoff and flight, thanks to a row of electric motor/propeller units that accelerate airflow across its entire wing. Porsche’s drawings and patents show that he anticipated this, as well, envisioning aircraft powered by a central motor-generator driving many electric motor/prop units. Such distributed power is also essential for today’s many quad-rotor drone aircraft.

Read more about Porsche’s remarkable career in Karl Ludvigsen’s excellent "Ferdinand Porsche: Genesis of Genius."