Ask fair-weather enthusiasts to name the first hybrid automobile, and the answer is likely to be the Toyota Prius, which debuted in the Japanese market in 1997, or the Honda Insight, which hit the market in 1999. Those with a broader automotive knowledge may cite the 1901 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus, but the 1896 Armstrong phaeton hybrid, which sold for a fee-inclusive price of $483,400 at Bonhams Amelia Island sale on Thursday, March 10, predates the Semper Vivus by approximately five years.
Harry E. Dey had a passion for electric vehicles, and his 1895 design for an electric car brought him to the attention of the Rogers Mechanical Carriage Company. The firm had been importing Rogers Motor Carriages from France, but wanted to reverse-engineer the automobile for assembly in the United States. Dey pushed for the new motor carriage to be powered by electric, but company executives, concerned over range limitations, insisted it be powered by gasoline instead.
Undeterred, Dey blended the two worlds, creating a vehicle with a 6.5-liter opposed-twin gasoline engine and a dynamo wound flywheel that could perform numerous functions. At rest, the flywheel served as an electric motor, powered by the car’s onboard batteries to act as a revolutionary “self-starter,” addressing the hand-cranking concern of early motorists. Once underway, the flywheel acted as a generator, charging the onboard storage batteries, providing spark and delivering power to the lights; as with modern hybrids, it also supplied a degree of regenerative braking. Remarkably, the motor was said to be powerful enough to propel the carriage limited distances under battery power alone.
Dey’s design also included features like solenoid-controlled intake valves to assist starting, and an innovative electro-magnetic clutch that transmitted more power to the dynamo as engine speed increased. The car’s transmission featured three forward speeds and a reverse gear, and Dey’s design specified that some of the gears be cut from rawhide to reduce noise (which, had the vehicle entered production, likely would have delivered an unsatisfactory service life).
The Armstrong Manufacturing Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was chosen to build Dey’s prototype, which was featured in an 1896 issue of Horseless Age magazine. Convinced of the hybrid motor carriage’s potential, executives from the Rogers Mechanical Carriage Company formed the American Horseless Carriage Company, quickly announce Dey’s carriage as their new product.
The closing years of the 19th century were a tumultuous time, and neither the American Horseless Carriage Company nor the Rogers Mechanical Carriage Company survived past 1896. Perhaps unpaid for its role in the hybrid’s creation, the Armstrong Manufacturing Company retained possession of Dey’s carriage, and uncertain exactly what to do with it, tucked the hybrid away in a corner of the plant.
In 1963, the carriage was taken home by a long-term plant employee. Having survived decades of neglect (and at least one flood), the automobile was in need of restoration, though it would be several more decades before such an ambitious project was begun. In 1995, the Armstrong was purchased by Dennis David, who in turn passed it along to the McGee Collection, which focused on Connecticut-built automobiles.
Realizing the car’s historic value and the extent of the work needed to restore it, the McGee Collection sold the car to Robin Loder, a British veteran car enthusiast who was determined to return the complex antique to operational status. Working with mechanic and fabricator Roger Steer, the pair achieved this goal and had the Armstrong dated to 1896 by the Veteran Car Club.
The car next passed to the consignor, an American collector who sent it off to Holman Engineering in 2015 to sort out the few remaining bugs. Under the supervision of George Holman, the car’s mechanical and electrical systems were properly sorted, and the Armstrong’s carriage wheels were strengthened to accommodate the torque of the car’s hybrid drivetrain. A little-known piece of automotive history, the Armstrong will certainly serve as a conversation starter for its new owner, whether entered in concours or veteran rally competition.
Other cars in the top-10 at Bonhams Amelia Island sale included a 1937 Bugatti Type 57SC Sports Tourer, which sold for $9,735,000, setting a new world record for a 57S sold at auction; a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Cabriolet A, which sold for $2,970,000; a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4, which sold for $2,750,000; a 1933 Maserati 8C 3000 Biposto, which sold for $1,001,000; a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe, which sold for $902,000; a 1960 Maserati 3500 GT Spyder, which sold for $880,000; a 1935 Riley MPH Two-Seater Sports, which sold for $880,000; a 1910 Thomas Flyer Model K 6-70 “Flyabout,” which sold for $825,000; and a 1939 Lagonda V12 Drophead Coupe, which sold for $458,700.
For complete results from the Bonhams Amelia Island auction, visit Bonhams.com.