Electric cars are generally viewed as modern innovations

Today, a gasoline-electric hybrid car is generally viewed as a modern innovation. However, in fact, America’s first hybrid was born over 117 years ago. Yet, with all the innovations in today’s electric cars, we still face the same challenges of limited range per charge and a long recharge time.

Here’s an example. The Munson Company of La Porte, Indiana, is recognized as the first to produce a workable gasoline-electric hybrid car in America in April 1898.

Munson Buggy photo
Munson Buggy
The Munson Company of La Porte, IN

The Munson had many unique benefits:

  • It combined the good points of both the gasoline engine and electric motor.
  • Ten gallons of gasoline would furnish power to propel the vehicle 100 miles or more over ordinary, well-traveled roads.
  • No manual starting apparatus was required because starting was automatically controlled from the driver’s seat. This predates self-starters on gasoline engine autos by 14 years.
  • The electric motor automatically supplied the extra power required when the engine was taxed beyond its normal speed by driving conditions.
  • The required storage battery was 50 percent lighter in weight and, because it was almost constantly charged, would outlast the battery in conventional electric auto.
  • All of these features were accomplished mechanically, long before the advent of computerized controls.

Another example comes from Studebaker. The company’s first recorded sale of a car was an electric car in February 12, 1902. Auto production for the year was 20 electric cars. The cars had a top speed of 13 miles per hour and an approximate 40-mile range between charges with two passengers riding along. If this top speed seems ridiculously low, the standards of the age need to be considered. Electrics were primarily used in urban areas, where their main competition was horse-drawn carriages and buggies. Horse-drawn vehicles had a normal cruising speed of four or five miles per hour. Speed limits were very low in most urban areas. Some major cities were as low as four miles per hour. For 1902, the Studebaker electric was quite competitive.

1902 Studebaker Stanhope
1902 Studebaker Stanhope

One famous buyer of a Studebaker electric car was the inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who bought an early Stanhope, probably in late 1903 or early 1904. This purchase may have been simultaneous with his introduction of the Edison battery, which occurred in 1904. Studebaker was one of the first to adopt Edison’s new batteries. Studebaker produced 1,841 electrics over 10 years with production ending in 1912.

Interestingly, Munson’s 1898 brochure illustrates the problem the company faced by quoting Thomas A. Edison on the benefits of the gasoline engine car over an electric auto. “I believe in ten years a horse will be a rare sight. The automobile carriage is here to stay. It is now practicable, and will soon be cheap enough for general use. Gasoline will be the motive power, for it is more economical and a large supply of it can be carried. Electric storage batteries are too heavy, and besides they are not practicable.” Doesn’t this sound eerily familiar?

With all of merits of today’s gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in electric autos, they are still plagued by the same problems – limited range per charge and a long recharge time. Only time will tell if electric cars rise or fall in popularity like they did 100 years ago.

For more information on Indiana’s auto pioneers follow this link.

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