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By David Rooney on

Hybrid vehicles

Transport Curator David Rooney explores the long history of the hybrid vehicle.

I was talking recently about battery-powered electric vehicles, but the big story right now is the hybrid car, which combines both a petrol engine and a battery-driven motor. They’re pretty complicated, but the HowStuffWorks tutorial here explains it clearly. The idea is that they’re more fuel-efficient than purely petrol cars, thereby reducing climate-changing emissions.

But the concept has a long history – albeit with different aims in mind. In the early years of motoring, for instance, one big problem with petrol cars was changing gear. Until transmission technology improved, it was a real challenge to shift up and down. One solution was this petrol-electric hybrid, in our stored collection:

Fiat petrol-electric car, 1927 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Fiat petrol-electric car, 1927 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s a Fiat car, modified in 1927, in which the petrol engine drives an electric generator which powers a motor. The motor drives the wheels. There was no complicated gear-changing needed. This is the same principle as diesel-electric locomotives, for example, so whilst it didn’t catch on in cars (gear-changing technology advanced quickly) it’s still used today on our railways.

Another type of hybrid, which is seeing renewed development, is the fuel-cell car. Here, the engine is replaced by a fuel cell, which takes in a hydrogen-based fuel and air, generating electricity. The electricity again drives the wheels through a motor. This Daf 44 family saloon was modified in the late 1960s as an experiment, but it was really heavy and didn’t make it into production:

Daf 44 modified fuel-cell car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
Daf 44 modified fuel-cell car, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Now, all eyes are on further possible alternatives to the petrol or diesel car. One thing’s for sure: they’re taking a long time to develop!

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