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By Ben Russell on

Driving into the future

Ahead of the COP26 climate summit, the UK Government announced a ban on petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2035. Curator Ben Russell explains more about the first mass-produced hybrid car, which recently joined the collection.

The world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid car – a Prius built in Japan by the Toyota Motor Corporation in 1997 – has recently joined the Science Museum Group Collection.

First Generation Prius hybrid petrol-electric car arrives at the National Collections Centre.

Developed as a result of Toyota’s 1992 Earth Charter, which set a corporate commitment to develop and market road vehicles with the lowest emissions possible, the Prius was designed as a reliable and efficient ultra-low emission vehicle (as defined by the American EPA).

The car had a relatively small 1.5 litre petrol engine for its size and a large battery, charged by a regenerative braking system.

This system converted kinetic energy (produced by applying the brakes) into useful electrical energy that was stored in the car’s battery for later use.

The petrol engine and electric motors could power the car independently or together to provide additional umph.

Toyota launched the Prius in 1997. Over 120,000 of the first-generation model were sold, but at a price that was 50% of the cost of manufacturing the vehicle. The sedan body style of this model is rare in Europe, unlike the sleek lift-back version we are more used to seeing on our streets.

As the first-generation Prius was only sold in Japan it’s been somewhat challenging to acquire for the collection.

First generation Prius, part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

Prius was chosen for the car’s name as it is Latin for before or prior.

While the Prius has been built in unprecedented numbers for a hybrid petrol-electric vehicle, electric cars have been built for more than a century (for at least as long as the petrol car has been around).

The Bersey electric taxi, designed by Walter Bersey in 1897. Pictured when it was on display at the Science Museum.

London’s first self-propelled taxi, the Bersey taxi-cab was electrically powered and launched in 1897. It’s now part of the collection, as is a luxurious vehicle by French firm Krieger created in 1904.

London department store Harrods used electric vans from 1919 for quiet, pollution-free urban deliveries. This Harrods van was made in 1932 and covered over 320,000 miles making deliveries before it joined our collection in 1970. We even have a tiny Ford Comuta from 1967.

Harrods electric delivery van, 1932. Part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

Also recently added to the collection was a Detroit Electric car, built in 1916 by the Anderson Electric Car Company in Detroit, USA.

This vehicle reminds us that electric cars were produced in significant numbers very early in the history of automobiles. Between 1910-18 in the USA, reputedly more electric cars were sold than those powered by petrol and steam. During this time electric cars sold in some numbers in the UK too (mainly in London).

The Detroit Electric car’s huge selling point was how easy it was to drive.

Rather than hand cranking the engine into life and contending with a clunky gear box, the driver need only turn a key and flick two switches to drive smoothly away.

The driver’s compartment was stylishly upholstered and comfortable, with facing seats. The car was intended for town use. Powered by two large batteries, the car could travel 30-50 miles on a single charge with a maximum speed of 22mph.

The car was marketed to female drivers, with devotees including Clara Ford, wife of automobile magnate Henry Ford.

Detroit Electric car, 1916, pictured in the Conservation workshop at the National Collections Centre.

Our collection also contains historic hybrid vehicles.

Early car gear boxes could be awkward to use, but this problem could be avoided by using an electric transmission. The engine of our 1927 Fiat petrol-electric car drives a generator which powers an electric motor, controlled by a hand-adjusted speed control.

Hydrogen is an alternative energy source for vehicles, with fuel cells combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air to generate electricity with water as the only by-product. We have a Daf 44 saloon car which was modified to use fuel cells in 1967.

Based on a Daf 44, this car was converted to demonstrate the feasibility of fuel cells for vehicle propulsion.

Colleagues working at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire also use two modern hydrogen cars to move around the 545-acre site.

Electric, hydrogen and hybrid cars have a vital part to play in meeting our future transport needs in a sustainable way. These items in the Science Museum Group Collection show society has been fascinated by this challenge for much longer than you might think.

Further reading

The surprisingly old story of London’s first electric taxi

How we photographed the Prius