Up for auction this week in the United States is the world’s first known hybrid car, the Armstrong Phaeton.
It was built in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1894-95 by engineering visionary Harry E. Dey for the Armstrong Manufacturing Company and is the only one of its type in existance.
It bristles with features that would not be seen on production vehicles until many years later. These included a tubular chassis frame that serves as the exhaust, electric lights, and electromagnetically controlled inlet valves.
The car also features an early form of automatic spark control, managed by a flyweight governor mounted on the end of the crankshaft.
It can run on battery-electric power only, petrol only, or in hybrid mode with both power sources working together. New Yorker Dey patented many of his developments.
The engine is a 6.5-litre two-cylinder unit coupled to a dynamo flywheel that provides regenerative braking and charges an onboard battery.
The battery provides electricity to start the engine via an electromagnetic starter within the flywheel. Armstrong called it a ‘commencer.’ It predates Cadillac’s self-starter system by 16 or so years.
The battery also powers the single electric headlight and the electric clutch. The transmission is a three-speed semi-automatic unit with additional variable magnetic drive, another engineering wonder that wasn’t seen again for another 20 years.
The Armstrong Phaeton doesn’t need a clutch pedal because the clutch is electric and automatically disengages and re-engages. The driver swaps cogs using a selector on the steering column, offering three forward gears and one reverse..
One early hiccup in development were the carriage-type wheels – they weren’t strong enough to cope with the engine’s torque and had to be reinforced.
The Armstrong Phaeton lay dormant in a factory in Connecticut until it was found in 1963. It was stored again until 1995 when its significance was realised. Since then it has undergone restoration work both in England and the US. It is expected to fetch between $US175,000 to $US275,000.