Meet the World's First Hybrid Car--Built in 1896

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 02, 2016

It’s an American-made car, and it may well be:
  • The first modern hybrid car
  • The first gas car with an electric self-starter (16 years before Cadillac)
  • The first car with a “semi-automatic transmission,” benefitting from a foot-free electrically operated clutch
They couldn't handle the Armstrong Phaeton in 1896. (Bonhams photo)You’ve heard of the legendary Semper Vivus hybrid, built by Ferdinand Porsche with four electric wheel motors in 1900? The Armstrong is earlier, and it’s a technological marvel. It’s got regenerative braking, and it can run on gas, electric or a combination of the two. The tubular chassis also serves as the exhaust, and the muffler is structural as a rear cross member. The car was built in 1896, and that makes it also one of the oldest working American cars of any type in the world.

It’s the 1896 Armstrong Phaeton Gasoline-Electric Hybrid, and after many decades (and being in a flood) it has finally been fully restored. The sole example of the Armstrong Phaeton will be auctioned off under the Bonhams gavel at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida March 10.

Ferdinand Porsche's Semper Vivus of 1900 was also a hybrid, but late to the party. (Porsche photo)The story of the Armstrong, relayed to me by Evan Ide, Bonhams motoring specialist, is pretty incredible. Its builder, Harry E. Dey, “was quite a visionary,” Ide said. “But I’m quite familiar with that era of automobile and I’d never heard of him.” Neither had I.

The Phaeton grew out of a commission Dey (who built his first electric car in 1895) received from the Roger Mechanical Carriage Company, an American outfit that was importing the Roger car from France. Roger wanted a simple electric car it could build itself, but it got far more. Dey’s complex hybrid Phaeton, with a 6.5-liter, two-cylinder engine, cost so much to scale up it essentially bankrupted its parent company. “They were out of business by the time the car was done,” Ide said.

Dey had the car built in Bridgeport, Connecticut by Armstrong Manufacturing, an engineering company known for pipe threading and other industrial stuff. Possibly because Dey couldn’t pay the bill, the car stayed in Bridgeport, got flooded at some point, and was still there in 1963, when an employee took it home and stashed it in his Connecticut garage.

And there it sat until the mid-1990s, when British specialist Robin Loder took it on and did a partial restoration in England. “It was pretty rough from being in the flood—very rusty,” Ide said. “But despite serious corrosion it was all there.” After a herculean effort, the Armstrong was running, but with a bunch of issues remaining. Eight years ago, the car (with some remaining mechanical issues, especially inadequate wheels) was brought back to the States by the current owner, and fully restored by Holman Engineering in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A self starter, hybrid drive, a semi-automatic transmission--all in the days when the horseless carriage was brand new. (Bonhams photo)The Armstrong, which boasts a three-speed transmission with electric clutch operation (by wire!), is now running as intended. It's capable of 25 mph, and starts electrically with the flywheel acting as an electric motor. Nothing similar was seen on any car until Charles Kettering invented a self-starter for General Motors that first appeared on the 1912 Cadillac. Dey himself later described this feature in an article in Horseless Age:

The machine was provided with a magnetic clutch that automatically disconnected and connected the engine every time the gearshift lever was moved.

The Armstrong also offers regenerative braking. Ide describes it as riding well on large carriage-type elliptical springs. “It works amazingly well,” Ide said.

Dey lost out on the Armstrong, but he did go on to build electric cars under the Dey Electric Corporation name between 1917 and 1919. Partner Charles Steinmetz, ex-GE, said the company’s lightweight design would “dethrone the gasoline car.” Alas, no.

And Dey wasn’t done with hybrids, because in 1919 he built another one—with a three-horsepower air-cooled gas engine to charge the two-horsepower electric motor. The small gas engine could even be removed and used as a stationary charging unit to power house lighting. Again, it was a revolutionary design that went nowhere—by then, the electric car was in eclipse, and nobody wanted to hear about hybrids, just as they were deaf to the possibilities way back in 1896.

A major selling point for the Armstrong, which Bonhams estimates as going for $175,000 to $250,000, is its early build date. That makes it eligible for the legendary London to Brighton Run. 

The Dymaxion--a minivan long before Chrysler thought of building one. (Wikipedia photo)By the way, Bridgeport was quite the automotive center in its day. The Locomobile was built there, employing the talented Andrew Riker (yes, related to Rikers Island). Riker was also a pioneer in electric automobiles, and built one in 1898 that is now in the showroom at Dragone Classic Motorcars in Westport, Connecticut.

Much later, the Locomobile factory was used to build Buckminster Fuller's revolutionary Dymaxion car. And who can forget the Exemplar I, a show car built in Italy for the Bridgeport Brass company in 1967--designed to showcase the advantages of bringing back brass trim for cars.

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