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1916 Wood Dual-Power gas and electric automobile.  Gift of Adin P. Rawnsley.  ID.28.436.1

2002 Toyota Prius hybrid automobile.  ID.2006.74.1

March 2007

Hybrid Cars: If they weren't a good idea in 1916, why are they a good idea now?

Question: Which of these cars has the technologically sophisticated, fuel-efficient, low-emission, hybrid electric/gasoline drive?

Answer: Both.

These two vehicles, built 86 years apart, say a great deal about changing technology, but they say even more about our society's changing values.



MORE:  Hybrid Cars: If they weren't a good idea in 1916, why are they a good idea now?


The Woods Motor Vehicle Company, established in 1899 as one of America's earliest automobile producers, was one of the biggest makers of battery-powered electric cars. But, by the early 1910s, the popularity of electric cars was waning.  Gasoline-powered cars went farther on a tank of gas than electric cars went on a single battery charge, and filling an empty tank was easier and quicker than recharging batteries.  These key shortcomings became more important as car owners drove their cars longer and longer distances.  The Woods company sought to meet the challenge by building a car with two power-plants—a clean, quiet, electric motor fed by batteries and an internal combustion engine fed by gasoline. The Woods Dual-Power automobile appeared in 1916.

Driving a Dual-Power was considerably different from driving either an electric or a gasoline car. The driver began by moving a lever on the steering wheel to get the car rolling under electric power.  When the car reached the speed of 20 miles per hour, the driver moved another lever to engage a clutch connecting the electric motor to the gasoline motor, starting the gasoline motor.  By manipulating the levers, the driver varied the balance between the gasoline and electric motors; the car could run on both power sources at the same time, or either independently.

But the Dual-Power seemed to solve problems customers didn't have in 1916.  The 48 miles-per-gallon figure claimed for the car meant little to a driver who could afford the Woods' $2,650 price.  And the Woods' 35 miles-per-hour top speed was no better than a $740 Model T Ford sedan's.  Woods didn't even advertise the Dual-Power's lower exhaust emissions, because automobile pollutants were of little concern at that time.  It also seems that the Dual-Power was not as smooth and trouble free as the ads and brochures suggested.  Woods re-engineered the car for 1917, but potential buyers were not impressed.  The Dual-Power—and the Woods Motor Vehicle Company itself—vanished in 1918.

Ratchet forward to the 1990s. Automakers around the world were confronted by rising gasoline prices and stringent regulations on tailpipe emissions.  Japanese giant, Toyota, set out to design a new car that dramatically improved gas mileage and dramatically reduced exhaust emissions.  Toyota engineers probably never heard of the Woods Dual-Power, but in 1994 they settled on a dual-power design, combining a small gasoline engine with batteries and an electric motor.  The first hybrid Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan in December 1997, and in the United States in August 2000.    

Although the Prius drive-train was similar in principle to the Dual-Power's, operating a Prius was much simpler. The driver merely turned the ignition key, pulled the transmission selector lever into “D,” stepped on the gas, and drove away.  A sophisticated computer system controlled both the electric and gasoline motors, smoothly shifting power between the two.  Sometimes the computer system used the gasoline engine to recharge the batteries.  It even shut the engine off when the car stopped, and started it up again as needed.  The Woods engineers would have given their eye teeth for such technology.  Woods sales staff might have given their right arms for the Prius' popularity.

Toyota's Prius hybrid sold well in Japan and even better in the United States.  By 2005, Prius accounted for nearly 10% of Toyota's American sales.  Part of that popularity was due to Prius' reliability, good performance, and considerable amount of interior room for its size.  Part was due to Prius' excellent gas mileage—over 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway and over 50 mpg in stop-and-go traffic.  But it could take several years for savings on gasoline to make up for the several thousand dollar price difference between a Prius and a comparable, conventional Toyota Corolla—even with federal tax subsidies for hybrid cars.

What really sold many people on the Prius was environmental responsibility.  Driving cars with lower emissions and higher gas mileage was The Right Thing To Do, whether it reduced out-of-pocket expenses or not.  Furthermore, driving a Prius told the world that you were Doing The Right Thing. The Prius became hip, especially among intellectuals and celebrities.  Movie stars took to arriving at the Academy Awards in Priuses rather than limousines to demonstrate their concern for the environment. Even after other car makers such as Ford, Honda, Saturn and Nissan added hybrids to their lineups, the Prius retained its cachet.
The stories of the Dual-Power and Prius tell us that the definition of what we want an automobile to do is always evolving.  Yes, we want cars to take us where we want to go. And taking us there in high style, or high comfort, or at high speed is often still important.  But, for many people, what a car doesn't do—use lots of gasoline, emit lots of pollutants—has become as important as what it does do.

-- Bob Casey, Curator of Transportation

Why "Prius" anyway?

Prius is the Latin word for prior, meaning to come before.  Since work on the new hybrid car began in the 1990s, it came before the 21st century.


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