The idea of driving hybrid and fully electric cars is more popular than ever. More and more manufacturers are following the trail blazed by the likes of Toyota and Lexus, bringing a wider choice of makes and models to car buyers looking to be more environmentally-friendly. From their very inception more than a century ago - to the present day – let’s take a look at the history of hybrid and electronic vehicles.
Although we think of electric cars as being a somewhat recent invention, the opposite is in fact true. At the dawn of the modern motor industry at the turn of the 20th century, electrically powered cars were all the rage. They were considered a step up from the steam-powered engines that were available at the time, in a period before internal combustion engines running on petrol had made their mark.
A prolific English inventor by the name of Thomas Parker built the first production electric car in London in 1884. Over the years that followed, electrical power was preferred over petrol engines because of the greater refinement and comfort that could be enjoyed. Parker may also have been motivated by the detrimental effects of smoke and pollution in London. However, as improvements to the internal combustion engine were made, as well as advances in technology such as the electric starter, the popularity of electric cars dwindled rapidly.
Hybrids had their moment, too. The Lohner-Porsche Elektromobil debuted at the 1900 Paris Expo. Initially a fully-electric vehicle, the model’s designer Ferdinand Porsche (who would later design the original Volkswagen Beetle) added an internal combustion engine that would recharge the batteries – making this the first hybrid car. However these, too, lost out to petrol in the decades that followed.
There were efforts to promote electric power in the 1960s and 70s. Toyota built its first hybrid vehicle in 1976, a small sports car which had an electric motor powered by a gas-turbine generator. Audi unveiled its Duo concept in 1989, their first steps into the world of hybrid. Electrically-powered vehicles remained a niche concept throughout the 20th century though, until the issues of pollution, global warming and environmental protection became widespread towards the end of the millennium.
A New Dawn
It was in 1997 that Toyota lit the blue - or possibly green - touch paper. This was the year that the Toyota Prius hybrid was launched in Japan, changing the automotive world forever. It went on sale across the world three years later, and proved to be a massive hit with drivers around the globe. The sales racked up by the Prius family now total over 6 million worldwide, a stunning figure considering electrically-powered cars weren’t initially greeted with huge amounts of enthusiasm.
The Prius came to market as a four door saloon, before the hatchback version was released in 2003. Now you can buy a plug-in hybrid, the Prius Prime, as well as the seven-seater Prius Plus. This model is particularly appealing to taxi drivers who enjoy the full benefits of the fuel-related cost savings, as well as exemption from congestion charges in cities like London. It’s also a great way for both drivers and passengers to feel like they’re doing their bit for the environment.
In the two decades since the Prius arrived, plenty of manufacturers have got in on the hybrid and electric trend – to varying degrees of success. Lexus became the first marque to offer hybrid across its entire range, while more recently BMW won praise for its i range, including the much-lauded i3.
Green And Clean
The latest models to hit the market have put advancements in technology to unbeatable use, with improvements made to the batteries, electric motors and petrol engines. Throw in the money saved through low fuel consumption and the smooth, silent ride you get, and a hybrid or electric vehicle makes for a pretty attractive proposition all round.
This is all a far cry from Thomas Parker’s early effort at an electric car. Especially when you consider the performance that hybrid and electric vehicles are able to produce nowadays. It’s this power and performance aspect that could propel these environmentally-friendly cars even further into the mainstream. The future is here.