Briggs & Stratton Hybrid

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Ready for a revelation? I love driving the all-electric Nissan Leaf. And hybrid Toyota Prius. Actually, pretty much every hybrid or electric vehicle I've driven has had a few compelling features.

Ok, I take that back: The Chrysler Aspen Hybrid has no redeeming features. 

But dig into history and you'll find that alternative fuel vehicles have been around pretty much forever. Problem is, it's taken a long time to get them to perform as well as people have come to expect.

That's the biggest problem with today's vehicle, the 1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid: it just wasn't quick enough.

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The impetus for this six-wheeled car isn't clear. Was it conceived as a promotional tool for the company's new 18-horsepower 2-cylinder engine? Or an ideological design, produced at the tail end of the U.S. energy crisis? 

There's evidence for both. When showing the car in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day, the company said, "We are all seeing our personal mobility threatened by rising petroleum prices and dwindling resources. The fundamental appeal of electric cars is that they allow us to use energy sources other than petroleum on the road."

Maybe they also had a time machine…

Bob Harkness, vice president of research and development at Briggs & Stratton took the chassis from a six-wheeled all-electric car produced in Quebec.

Here's how it shakes out: the front wheels steer, the middle set drives the car, and the rear set is a "captive trailer" to support the 1,000 lbs. of 6-volt marine-style lead-acid batteries.

Harkness and his team devised an interesting system for those batteries: they're at the rear because once depleted, owners could just slide them out for a new set. There's no indication the prototype had this capability, though.

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Both engines were mounted up front, joined by a Borg-Warner automatic clutch system, then to a four-speed manual transmission from the Ford Pinto. Drivers could select the gasoline motor, the electric motor, or both.

Combined horsepower? Twenty-six. Top speed was—if you were lucky—just shy of 100 km/h (60 mph). Weight was a reasonable-by-today's-standards 1450 kg (3,200 lbs), equivalent to a Honda Accord.

Range wasn't terrible, however. The Hybrid would do more than 50 km (30 miles) on electric power alone, and, once the batteries were depleted you had an onboard gasoline engine to take you home. 

More than enough range to go shopping—so long as you didn't buy much, because with the batteries in the back there wasn't much in the way of trunk space.

Styling was by Brooks Stevens Design Associates, the Wisconsin firm who styled the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, Jeep Wagoneer/Jeepster, and the (dreadful) Excalibur neo-classic, among other designs.

The Hybrid had a Volkswagen Scirocco windshield and doors and sleek covered headlights, which helped in the design department. Overall, I think it's quite striking.

It was tested in period by Motor Trend and Car and Driver, the latter saying it's, "…what you get when you mate a garden tractor with a golf cart."

As hybrids go, it wasn't the first by any stretch but was a good shot of publicity when American inventors were considering alternate-fuel vehicles much more seriously. 

The Briggs & Stratton Hybrid is just one car in a long line of strange vehicles with experimental power sources. 

But that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended Reading