In the early 21st century, the threat of global warming and the end of cheap gas worried many drivers. Among drivers’ options was buying a gasoline-electric hybrid such as this Prius. The hybrid concept was over 100 years old, but new technologies made it practical. Hybrids cost more but reduce fuel consumption, which leads to lower emissions.
Toyota introduced the Prius in Japan in 1997 and then worldwide in 2000. The price was steep for a compact, but tax credits offset some of the cost, and drivers got a little environmental peace of mind in the deal, too. THF206198
One of the selling points of modern hybrid cars is that computers do all the work. But many owners like monitoring the car’s operation on the in-dash screen and enjoy minimizing fuel usage. This image shows the dashboard of a 2004 Prius. THF101127
Toyota pointed to the Prius as proof of its commitment to the environment. This 2001 advertisement highlighted the company’s efforts to refine its hybrid system in a continued “search for even greener forms of transportation.” THF205087
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 different from driving an electric or gasoline car. The driver manipulated levers to vary the balance between the gasoline and electric motors.THF103732
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.
Operating a Prius was simple -- a sophisticated computer system controlled both the electric and gasoline motors, smoothly shifting power between the two.THF91042
Although the Prius drivetrain 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.
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. THF205087
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 is The Henry Ford’s former Curator of Transportation. A version of this post originally ran in March 2007 as part of our Pic of the Month series.
In 1916, gasoline was cheap, and no one cared about tailpipe emissions. But this hybrid wasn’t about fuel prices or pollution. Woods Motor Vehicle Company built it to capture new customers. Sales of the company’s electric cars were falling as more people chose gasoline-burning cars. The Dual-Power supposedly combined the best of both, but customers disagreed. The car and the company disappeared in 1918.
This 1913 Woods Electric was much like other companies’ electric cars. Sales of all electrics—not just Woods—declined in the teens. THF103736
The 1916 Dual-Power’s gasoline engine and electric motor are under the hood, connected by a magnetic clutch. Its battery box is under the seat, toward the rear.” THF103732
Woods used surprisingly antiquated imagery in the logo for the Dual-Power. Perhaps the company was trying to assure potential buyers that its radical new car was as reliable as the familiar horse. THF103741
When we look at an automobile, we are moved by what we see on the outside – its styling. But what moves the car is on the inside – its engine. Please join us for a rare look under the hoods of some of the finest automobiles at Henry Ford Museum. More than 40 cars have their engines exposed for you.
Here, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, describes some of his favorites.
Electric Motor: AC, permanent magnet, 33 kilowatt, 44 horsepower
Hybrid cars are an old idea, but their moment arrived with the Toyota Prius. The car’s gas and electric power plants sit side-by-side. The electrical inverter, on top of the electric motor, converts DC current from the batteries into AC used by the motor. That motor becomes a generator during braking, turning kinetic energy from the car’s momentum into electricity fed back to the batteries.