Just like electric cars, hybrids have been around a lot longer than you might think.

In fact, the first hybrid predates the Prius by 20 years and, believe it not, was built by Briggs & Stratton — the same Briggs & Stratton that makes engines for lawnmowers.

The year was 1979 and it came at the tail end of the then oil crisis which had car makers looking to low fuel consumption alternatives.

Keen to promote its new air-cooled, horizontally opposed two-cylinder engine, the company set out to develop a concept car with this unit as the core.

The new 700cc Briggs engine generated 13.4kW of power, with a 6kW Balder electric motor completing the setup.

This parallel hybrid arrangement was enabled by a Borg-Warner “Duo Cam” automatic clutch that allowed the petrol engine and electric motor to work alone or in tandem as required.

Brooks design proposal for the Briggs & Stratton Hybrid.

 

Power for the electric motor was stored in battery pack that consisted of 12 x 6-volt batteries that were located under the rear cargo area.

A separate 12-volt battery was used to power the car’s headlights and other accessories.

The 4420mm long, 1451kg vehicle was cobbled together from s number of sources to reduce research and development costs.

The idea was to build a car that could accommodate two adults, two children and the groceries.

Briggs & Stratton engineers borrowed the chassis of the Canadian Marathon C-360 electric van, which conveniently supplied the dual rear axle setup it required.

Steering, front suspension and four-speed-manual transmission came from a Ford Pinto.

Doors, dash and windscreen were lifted from a Volkswagen Scirocco.

To accommodate the 450kg weight of the battery pack, it was necessary to add a second ‘lazy’ rear axle.

The extra axle was used exclusively to bear the weight of the batteries; it was not fitted with brakes and was not connected to the powertrain.

The fibreglass bodywork was the work of Brooks Stevens Design Associates, with the final design penned by Cliff and his son Kip.

Stevens, who died in 1995 was an American industrial designer of home furnishings, appliances, automobiles and motorcycles — as well as a graphic designer and stylist.

He redesigned the 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk on a minuscule budget and designed Harley-Davidson motorcycles including the 1949 Hydra-Glide Harley — helping create the new suspension forks in the front, bucket headlight, and the streamlined design.

All Harleys since, including models in production now, are based on Stevens’ body designs.

He also designed the Jeep Wagoneer and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile — an American pop-culture icon.

 

After the debut of the fully functional hybrid concept, it was loaned to various publications to assess, with test results varying from magazine to magazine.

Motor Trend reported the Hybrid Concept returned 4.7L/100km in petrol-only mode, and 2.8L/100km when it operated as a hybrid.

These figures are pretty impressive, considering what modern hybrids get.

Not so the Hybrid’s performance which was more than leisurely.

Top speed was a reported 88km/h, while a 0-80km/h took a woefully slow 35 seconds.

In electric-only mode, the top speed dropped to 64km/h, which the car could maintain for about 100km before the batteries ran out charge.

Charging the battery pack took 8 hours using a household 110 volt outlet.

An updated version of the Hybrid Concept added regenerative braking, marginally improving range and hybrid fuel consumption.

Even with the regenerative brakes, however, the car needed to be plugged in periodically to operate in hybrid mode.

Unlike modern hybrids, the Briggs & Stratton Hybrid had no computer control module.

This meant that switching between drive modes was left entirely up to the driver, who was expected to know which mode would provide the most-efficient operation in any given situation.

The driver was also required to operate the manual transmission.

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From lawnmowers to the first hybrid

Riley

Chris Riley has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.
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