Riding the World's First Hybrid Car: 1900 Porsche Semper Vivus

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Photos: Brian Merchant/CC BY

Quick: name the first functional hybrid car ever built. Okay, sure, it's Porsche's Semper Vivus. But if you hadn't already read the headline to this post, you might have said the Prius. Yet the Semper Vivus beat the Toyota to the punch -- by about a hundred years.

Yes, the world's first hybrid electric cars (and all electric cars) were built way back at the turn of the century, when it was still unclear whether EVs or gas-powered cars would take off. The combustion engine quickly became king, of course, and most folks forgot that hybrids and EVs were even in the running. Which is why it's a pretty neat PR gimmick for Porsche to roll out an exact replica of the very first hybrid car -- painstakingly and immaculately recreated by a devoted hobbyist -- and give us press folk rides in the amazing vehicle to demonstrate that hybrid technology is seriously old news.


And here's some video of the Semper Vivus in action -- watch how unwieldy the steering is and what a colossal effort it takes the driver to turn it around:

And here's what it's like to sit in the backseat of the car as it's going full steam ahead. The Porsche engineers explained that the design took place at a point where cars were just beginning to ditch the horse and carriage aesthetic -- but as you can see, the idea of putting doors on a car hadn't quite occurred to anyone yet.

This is just kind of a cool shot of the Semper Vivus sitting in modern day traffic, in New York City's West Highway:

And, finally, the good stuff -- here, a Porsche rep translates an explanation of how the old fashioned hybrid works:

In effect, we've known how to build functional electric cars and hybrid electrics for literally over 100 years. The moral of the story, to me, is that once a series of interests align and become entrenched -- the way oil companies' and automakers' did early on -- it's tough to untangle them. There was some serious money on EVs -- the first American taxi company was all-electric, for instance -- but the combustion engine won out for a variety of reasons. And because of gas-powered cars, we eventually got massive highway expansion and suburban sprawl -- if things had lined up differently for EVs or hybrids early on, the US could have been built completely differently. Of course, we'd have an even bigger coal problem ...

But I digress -- as you can probably tell, hopping aboard the Semper Vivus was good fun, and a fine opportunity to give the fundamentals of the auto industry as we know it a good once-over.