Legendary automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche would likely be intrigued by the recent introduction of hybrid versions of some of the vehicles that bear his name and confirmation of plans to build the battery-boosted 918 Spyder super sports car.
After all, he pioneered the hybrid concept well over a century ago. And shortly afterwards dropped it in favour of gasoline-fuelled internal combustion, moving on to develop among other great designs the Mercedes-Benz SSK of the 1920s and the awesome Auto-Union racers of the 1930s.
But he’d undoubtedly find it interesting that what for him proved a dead end, has made a U-turn in the hands of engineers who carry on his name and the tradition of innovation he established.
The latter was acknowledged earlier this year by Porsche AG, which celebrated the creation by a young Ferdinand Anton Porsche of the world’s first functional hybrid gas/electric, as well as the industry’s first use of front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive and four-wheel brakes, by displaying a recreation of the 1900 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus at the New York Auto Show.
Porsche, born in Austria in 1875, grew up as the automobile era was dawning, but was initially more fascinated by electricity’s burgeoning possibilities, and in his late teens went to work for an electrical equipment manufacturer.
By the time he was 23, he had learned a thing or two about electricity’s potential as an automotive power source and was hired by high-end carriage-maker Jacob Lohner who counted among his customers Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria.
Lohner saw the future of his business evolving from horsepower to some form of self-propulsion and chose quiet, safe and reliable electricity over still-chancy steam or internal combustion alternatives.
The initial result of Porsche’s involvement was an all-electric vehicle motivated by motors in the front wheel hubs and introduced at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 as the Lohner-Porsche. With Porsche himself at the wheel of this 1,125-kg machine, it set a new record that year on a 10-kilometre climb up the Semmering Pass road, hitting 40 km/h.
This first effort was followed by a version fitted with hub motors on all four wheels, which became the world’s first all-wheel-drive vehicle and the first to be equipped with brakes on all four wheels. But Porsche was by this time realizing the huge weight of the lead acid batteries required to power an electric vehicle and the short range they provided weren’t going to cut it.
Enter Semper Vivus – “always alive” for those whose Latin is rusty – the world’s first hybrid car.
Porsche created Semper Vivus by mounting a pair of water-cooled. 3.5-horsepower, De Dion Bouton single-cylinder gasoline engines amidships that drove a pair of generators that supplied power to the hub motors. Any of that power that was excess to requirements flowed to a battery pack that was about half the weight of the one in the pure electric car.
Porsche had created serial hybrid drive. A side benefit of this was that the generators could be used as starter motors for the gasoline engines.
Semper Vivus was still a prototype, however, with no real bodywork, an un-sprung rear axle and issues with the electrical control system, so it wasn’t saleable, although it did impress the crowds at the 1901 Paris motor show.
Porsche got to work on these problems and in short order created the Lohner-Porsche Mixte (based on the French term voitures mixtes), which was equipped with a front-mounted, four-cylinder, 5.5-litre, 25-hp Daimler engine, which drove a generator under the seat, to power the hub motors and charge a smaller still battery pack, which allowed it to be driven only a couple of kilometres on battery power alone.
Porsche’s hybrid was by now a viable proposition and by the end of 1901 an initial run of five Mixtes had been sold, to none other than Emil Jellinek, Daimler agent and the man responsible for pushing the car maker to create the car that he named Mercedes after his daughter.
Porsche continued development with improved control of the generator and redesigned hub motors and eliminated battery-only capability to lower weight and in 1902 climbed behind the wheel to compete in the Exelberg race, which he won. He later took Emperor Ferdinand for a spin, which “satisfied His Majesty in every respect.”
The Lohner-Porsche Mixte worked, but it was complex, required a lot of maintenance, and cost about double that of a comparable gasoline-engined car, which resulted in only 11 being sold by 1905, none of which survived (65 pure electrics were sold during this period).
When the Porsche Museum set out to recreate Semper Vivus in 2007, it had to start from scratch.
Research unearthed photos and some technical drawings and a few original bits and pieces, which were handed over Porsche Engineering and a team headed by coachbuilders Karosseriebau Drescher.
Three years later, Semper Vivus arrived in New York. It was not only the first hybrid but the first vehicle to carry the Porsche name. And the inspiration for the Cayenne S Hybrid SUV, the newly launched Panamera S Hybrid, the 911 GT3 R Hybrid racer and the upcoming in 2013 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid supercar that shows how far Porsche’s hybrid power system has progressed with its projected 500-hp gasoline V-8 and pair of 218-hp electric motors.
If the twentysomething Ferdinand Porsche thought 40 km/h blew his hair back, imagine what he’d think of the 918 Spyder’s 0-100 km/h in a little over three seconds and a top speed of 320 km/h. Or, given the high price that stalled sales of his Mixte at 11, the $845,000 that will be asked for one of the 918 that will be produced.
Back in 1900
The Paris exhibition, at which the Lohner-Porsche electric is revealed, also introduces talking films, escalators, an example of Rudolf Diesel’s engine that runs on peanut oil and Campbell’s soup, which wins a gold medal that’s still reproduced on its label.
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The first flight by a Zeppelin takes place over Lake Constance in Germany. Developed from ideas first put forward by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1874, the rigid airship is 128 metres long and powered by a pair of 14.2-hp engines. After its heyday in the 1920s, the fiery crash of the Hindenburg in 1933 virtually ends the airship era.
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