Munson America’s first hybrid

The Munson, America’s gasoline-electric hybrid was born over 110 years ago.

Today, a hybrid car is generally viewed as a new innovation. However, in fact, America’s gasoline-electric hybrid was born over 110 years ago. On April 25, 1898, the Munson Company of La Porte, Indiana, is recognized as the first to produce a workable gasoline-electric car in America.

The Munson Company

Three Munson vehicles parked in front of the company building.

In reviewing Munson’s 1898 promotional brochure, the company’s approach to improving gasoline engine and electric car technology is noteworthy. The copy illustrates and describes the vehicle’s innovative engineering.

All of the mechanical and electrical components were carried under the vehicle on a frame between the front and rear axles. A two- or four-cylinder gasoline engine, depending on the service of the vehicle, drove what Munson called the electric machine. The electric machine automatically operated, either as a generator or a motor, according to the speed of the engine. The armature or revolving part of the electrical machine was the fly wheel of the engine. The engine and electric machine were slow speed units ranging from 250 to 500 revolutions per minute. Adjacent to the machine was a two-speed gearbox with a friction type clutch activated by a lever in front of the driver to provide a slow speed when needed and a high speed for good roads. A secondary shaft from this transmission provided direct drive by spur gears to the differential gear on the rear axle.

Munson Buggy photo

A Munson Buggy.

Munson employed electric starting with this system 14 years before self-starters became popular for gasoline engines. The car was started by moving a controller lever located in front of the driver. This lever directed current from the storage battery to the electric machine, which acted as a motor and started the gasoline engine. When the engine came up to speed, the current was through the machine. The motor acted a generator, sending charging current back to the storage battery. Ordinary speed regulation was effected by the controller. The controller also cut off the engine ignition system, thus, simultaneously starting and stopping both the engine and electric machine.

As far as fuel economy is concerned, the brochure noted that 10 gallons of gasoline would furnish power to propel the vehicle 100 miles or more over ordinary, well-traveled roads at the rate of five to fifteen miles per hour, according to the conditions and gradients of the roads. This greatly exceeded the range of standard electric automobiles of the day of 30 to 40 miles per charge.

The Munson had other unique benefits.

  • It combined the good points of both the gasoline engine and electric motor.
  • 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 machine automatically supplied the extra power required when the engine was taxed beyond its normal speed by driving conditions and acted as a speed limiter when descending hills.
  • 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.

Munson’s 1898 brochure showed three different vehicles offered: a 7 h.p. single-seat buggy weighing 2,000 pounds; a 12 h.p. two-seat passenger vehicle, weighing 2,500 to 3,000 pounds; and a 12 to 15 h.p. delivery wagon, weighing 3,000 to 3,500 pounds with hauling capacity of 3,000 pounds. It was also reported that an 11 passenger omnibus was built for testing.

It appears that Munson’s design still wasn’t practical for the period. Gasoline was inexpensive at the time. Most car manufacturers focused on developing gas propelled cars, which the public preferred. Munson closed its doors in the fall of 1900.

Interestingly, Munson’s 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.”

Edison’s last statement reflects the same problem that engineers and designers have been grappling with for over 100 years. The standard electric automobile’s traveling distance was limited by the capacity of the storage battery between recharge under the most favorable conditions. Under severe conditions, the range per charge decreased rapidly. The cost of maintaining the standard electric vehicle battery was excessive, due in part to the rapid deterioration of the battery from constant charging and discharging.

Today’s gasoline-electric hybrids are engineered for efficiency. Thanks to the continuing development of electric vehicle batteries, the size, weight, and cost of the battery pack have been greatly reduced. In a hybrid car, a computer calculates when to let the gasoline engine do all the work and how much of an assist is required from the electric motor.

Due to modern engineering, these components require a fraction of the space of their early predecessors. Package all of these items in a body designed for maximum aerodynamics and low rolling resistance, and you’ll find a vehicle that will go the maximum distance with the greatest improvement in fuel efficiency.

It is interesting to think that it has taken over 100 years for this technology to be efficiently packaged into a hybrid at an attractive price. We’re left to ponder if Munson would have survived to the present, if it could have designed an efficient valued vehicle?

To learn more about Indiana automotive history, I suggest you purchase a copy of our book; Indiana Cars: A History of the Automobile in Indiana today.

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