For sure, the turbine like whistle of a Tesla or the whisper quiet creepiness of a Lexus as it sidles up behind you in a parking lot will never have the pure passion of a Mezger GT3 or a Ferrari V12. We love our internal combustion engines, but there’s no denying progress. Hybrid and full electric driving technology is whistling at us over the horizon.
But just like the diesel engine, hybrid electric drive is nothing new. Indeed Porsche set out to prove just this point in 2011 when they researched and recreated what is considered to be the world’s first fully working hybrid car, originally built in 1901. The history, once you starting looking into it, has remarkable similarities to the present day.
The Semper Vivus was a collaboration between a young Ferdinand Porsche, circa 1894, plus Austrian coachbuilder Jacob Lohner. As was common practice at the time, coachbuilders and engineers teamed up to build stagecoach style bodies fitted onto chassis and transmissions. The result was the Semper Vivus, debuted at the Paris Show. That’s the Paris technology show of 1901.
Electric cars were not actually new at that point. But they had the same issues of public perception then as they do right now in 2016. Petrol was becoming freely available, but electricity? That was harder. The young Ferdinand Porsche realised that taking a petrol engine and using it to generate electricity, in the same was as today’s BMW i3, was the way forward. The car had two, single cylinder engines that drove a generator, which in turn drove the hub centre motors.
The hub centre mounted electric motors were a first. This article gives a full overview of the Lohner Porsche collaboration and makes an interesting read. Just as today, Porsche faced the same challenges of compromising weight vs power, sacrificing battery cells to save weight, only to see range anxiety creeping in.
In 2011, Porsche AG recreated the Semoper Vivus hybrid, correct in every detail. It was a labour of love, incorporating every aspect of the 1901 design, including regenerative technology for harvesting unused power. Porsche’s modern recreation of the Semper Vivus is a fully working car that can sometimes be seen at the Porsche Museum. Despite having no bodywork to speak of, it has a front axle weight of 1060kg, with 830kg over the rear, with of course, no powered steering. One of the original Lohner – Porsches had a kerb weight of four tonnes….
Just as today, the early adopters of the new technology found it expensive to acquire. So although over 600 were sold in 1906, Lohner Werk moved on to commercial vehicle construction, while Porsche began to take an interest in motor racing……
It’s fair to say that this could be considered to be the origins of Porsche Motorsport, as despite going in separate directions, Lohner continued to support Porsche’s racing ambitions. Several Austrian land speed records were set, with a top speed eventually achieving 37 mph (60 km/h) with Porsche at the wheel. He was victorious in a number of motorsport events including the Exelbert Rally in 1901.
With both drivetrain engineering excellence in Lohner’s custom coaches and motorsport experience, Porsche won the 1905 Potting Prize as Austria’s most outstanding automotive engineer. In 1906, Porsche was snapped up by Daimler-Benz as chief designer. Jacob Lohner said at the time: “He is very young, but is a man with a big career before him. You will hear of him again.”