The world’s first gas/electric hybrid car was called Semper Vivus – Latin for “always alive.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be as enduring as the name it was given 111 years ago.  Yes.  You read that right. We tend to think of hybrid technology as new and modern.  But, it’s been around almost as long as autos existed.

In 1900, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the German founder of Porcshe, built the first functional hybrid car called the Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus:

Loaner-Porsche-Hybrid - Old Electric Hybrid Car
“an electric car with wheel-hub motors driving the front wheels. Soon after, this car featured all-wheel drive and four-wheel brakes, another world first. A highlight of his early years as an automotive designer was the Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus that went down in history 111 years ago as the first functional hybrid car.

…In this vehicle, two generators paired with petrol engines formed a single charging unit, simultaneously supplying electricity to wheel-hub motors and batteries. In autumn 1900, Prof. Porsche set to work on a first prototype with petrol-electric hybrid drive.

… This was the birth of serial hybrid drive. As a full hybrid concept, the Semper Vivus was also able to cover longer distances purely on battery power until the combustion engine had to be engaged to recharge the batteries.”

A Semper Vivus prototype was shown at the Paris Motor Show in 1901, but the vehicles heavy weight, barebones chassis and unsprung rear axle didn’t stir up buyers.

Professor Porcshe continued to modify the vehicle for series production and in April 1902, he entered a lighter, more limited battery version called the Lohner-Porsche Mixte in the Exelberg race.

His two-seat Mixte racing car was not only visually impressive due to its modern proportions but impressive on the track, as well. His Lohner-Porsche seemed to cope effortlessly with even the steepest gradients of the 4.2-km gravel road leading up to the Exelberg, and it emerged as the victor in the large car class.

Suffering from high development costs and complex maintenance costs, only 11 hybrid cars sold between 1900 and 1905.

Depending on design and equipment, a Lohner-Porsche Mixte cost between 14,400 and 34,028 Krone, in some cases making it almost twice as expensive as comparable, conventionally powered motor vehicles. This was compounded by the high maintenance cost of the complex drive system that was unable to keep pace with the ever increasing reliability of normal petrol cars.

Interestingly enough, the pure electric vehicles were much bigger sellers.

Approximately 65 Lohner-Porsche electric cars were sold during the first five years of series production to the end of 1905.

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In November 2007 the Porsche Museum took on the project of constructing a fully functioning replica of the 1900 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus as a tribute to Dr. Porcshe.  Since there are no Semper Vivus still in existence, original drawings and exhaustive research provided the basis for the recreation by a team of experts led by coachbuilder Hubert Drescher.

A hundred and eleven years after the original was first completed, Porsche presented the recreated and fully functioning historic hybrid electric car at the Geneva Mootor Show 2011.

The replica, which took Porsche three years and $600,000 to produce, features two mid-mounted 1.2-liter engines and two electrical motors at the front wheels—the same general hybrid setup that Porsche uses in its current hybrids, the 918 Spyder and the Panamera S Hybrid. The Semper Vivus is a beast: Weighing in at more than 1.6 tons (most of which comes from the old fashioned lead-acid batteries), it can cruise at a little over 20 mph and has a range of about 125 miles.

Since we are staring down $4.00 a gallon now with $5 and $6 predicted by end of this summer, I can’t help thinking of so many what ifs.  Still I’m glad both the Semper Vivus and electric hybrids have had a rebirth.

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