Owen Magnetic- One of the First Hybrids

A large yellow open Owen Magnetic Touring 1917 car in a museum.
Owen Magnetic Touring 1917

If you asked the average car enthusiast which was the first hybrid car ever to hit the road you might get a few different answers. The 1999 Honda Insight? The 1997 Toyota Prius?

A hybrid vehicle is one with more than one source of power. A hybrid submarine would use diesel engines on the surface and battery power underwater. Most hybrid cars use a conventional petrol or diesel engine and battery-powered electric motors around town.

And the answer? The first hybrid car was built in 1900!

Yes, the 1900 Lohner-Porsche was a four-wheel-drive, four tonnes monster that featured an electric motor in every wheel hub, a petrol engine and 1.8 tonnes of lead-acid batteries. Built by the young Ferdinand Porsche, it gained huge public attention but turned out too heavy and expensive for popular consumption.

A large closed Owen Magnetic Touring 1917 car in a museum.
Owen Magnetic Touring 1917

In the US, the Owen Magnetic car used the same idea of a gasoline engine providing power to electric driving motors to get around the problem of the “crash” gearbox. It pioneered the idea of an electric series hybrid drivetrain. It just did without the batteries.

As we have seen in another article, before synchromesh gearboxes were invented, changing gear was unpleasant. Nervous drivers disliked the noisy business of sliding spinning gears into mesh with one another.

The Owen Magnetic avoided the crashing of gears by doing away with them altogether. There was no direct mechanical connection between the engine and the driven wheels.

Instead, the six-cylinder gasoline engine’s flywheel was replaced by a set of field windings acting as an electrical generator which in turn drove an electric motor attached to the rear wheels. The same principle is used in diesel-electric locomotives.

A picture of the six-cylinder gasoline engine
The six-cylinder gasoline engine

The electric current provided the transmission of power between the engine and wheels, and of course, electric current can be infinitely varied, leading to the slogan “The Car with a Thousand Speeds.”

A picture of the gearbox reflected in a mirror on the floor
The gearbox reflected in a mirror on the floor

The speed of the Own Magnetic was controlled by a lever next to the steering wheel.

A picture showing the interior of the car. The speed of the Own Magnetic was controlled by a lever next to the steering wheel.
The speed of the Own Magnetic was controlled by a lever next to the steering wheel.

This solution to the old “crash” gearbox was proposed by inventor Justus B. Entz. He began experimenting at the end of the 19th century with an electric transmission system that would give the driver the choice of an infinite number of ratios between engine and wheels.

There was thus no mechanical connection between the gasoline engine and the driven wheels. Furthermore, Entz’s system provided electrical braking which recharged the batteries. This was the first use of regenerative braking which is now a feature of modern electric vehicles.

The first prototype was destroyed when an electric spark set fire to the gasoline fuel system. His first Entz car was shown at the 1914 Auto Show in New York.

Entz’s car was spotted by the brothers Raymond and Ralph Owen, and who started making their own Owen Magnetic cars with Entz’s system.

The driving experience was unique. A single pedal controlled the engine speed, and a single lever on the steering wheel controlled the electrical output with a series of detented clicks.

There were no grinding gears or heavy clutch to operate. The reverse gear was easily selected by a lever at the left of the driving position, and the mechanical brakes were operated by a further lever.

Unfortunately, the car was highly expensive at $6,500 at a time when a Ford Model T cost $500. Like modern hybrids, it was heavy and most mechanics struggled to understand the technology.

As a result, the Owen Magnetic car stopped production in 1920. Was this a warning from history? Will our heavy and expensive electric and hybrid cars go the same way?

How much is an Owen Magnetic worth?

An Owen Magnetic is worth about $130,000 USD. This is based on one that sold at Bonhams for $129,000 in 2019. (source: Bonhams)

Where can you buy an Owen Magnetic?

The Owen Magnetic is a rare and expensive car. You can buy an Owen Magnetic from classic car sites, but they probably won’t appear that often. Here’s an example of one that went up for sale.