The concept of a hybrid car emerged from an unexpected source, not a car manufacturer at all but a 100 year-old company called Briggs & Stratton that makes air-cooled engines for outdoor power equipment — everything from lawn mowers to go karts.
In the mid-1970s, concerned by the fuel crisis as well as ever-increasing pollution, the US government began to allocate generous grants for research into alternative forms of power. With its eye on the main chance, Briggs & Stratton was only too happy to oblige; it had a low-power twin-cylinder engine it wanted to market, and if it could become a mass-supplier to the car industry it was onto a winner.
Briggs & Stratton came up with an idea for a car with two power sources — its new little 18 hp twin-cylinder engine, which could be fuelled by either gasoline or ethanol, combined with an 8 hp battery-powered electric motor in what is now known as a ‘parallel hybrid’ configuration. Sounds almost old-hat today. And in fact, it was then too. The idea harks back to the early days of motoring at the beginning of the 20th century, but there had been no incentive to develop it in an era of apparently inexhaustible oil supply.
The Hybrid was designed to be a non-polluting, cheap-to-run town car. It was surprisingly stylish considering its bizarre platform — a three-axle (six-wheel) chassis borrowed from an electric van. Two sets of rear wheels were needed to support the weight of a pack of twelve batteries mounted over the rear axle — a weight that was compensated for by a lightweight fibreglass body.
But there were other practical problems that remained unresolved: the batteries took all night to recharge and could only power the electric motor for about 30 miles before going flat. And 30 years later.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
Air-cooled 2 cylinder + battery powered electric motor
Single engine mode — top speed of 50 mph (80 km/h) Dual engine mode — top speed of 68 mph (109 km/h)
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Briggs & Stratton made their first foray into the car business in 1920, producing the cheapest auto ever: the Briggs & Stratton Flyer, costing under $50 (presently on sale for $23,500). The 1980 Briggs &Stratton Hybrid, described by Car and Driver magazine as ‘what you get when you mate a garden tractor with a golf cart’, can be seen in the company museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.