1896 Armstrong Hybrid Gasoline Electric Car

1896 Armstrong Hybrid Gasoline Electric Car

The old adage there is nothing new under the sun was never truer than with the 1896 Armstrong phaeton. This remarkable machine displays features that would not be commonly seen for decades and in some cases a century. This highly ambitious design was the brainchild of Harry E Dey. Throughout Mr. Deys involvement with the automobile industry he championed concepts that were startlingly forward looking. His primary interest was in the electric automobile and ways of dealing with its Achilles heal, a lack of range. Dey's first automobile design was completed in 1895. An innovative electric car design that brought Dey notoriety among the small community of 19th century automobile manufacturers.

During 1895 the Roger Mechanical Carriage Company of New York took notice of Dey's skills. This concern had been importing the Roger Motor Carriage from France and was interested in developing a version of the Roger suitable for manufacture in America. Dey was commissioned with the task. A Roger motorcar was sent to him to study but Dey chose to embark on an all-new design. The resulting design fused Dey's electrical interests with his client's desire for a gasoline carriage.

The Armstrong Company of Bridgeport Connecticut was commissioned to build the prototype on offer here. Armstrong had extensive manufacturing experience and capabilities and was well suited to the job.

To describe Dey's new automobile design as ambitious would be an understatement. Dey designed a car that was equal parts electric and gasoline automobile. His masterstroke was using an electric dynamo as the flywheel of the large, opposed-twin engine. This design allowed the engine to charge its storage batteries for ignition and lighting but could also rotate the engine for starting. Dey built solenoids into the intake valve housings to serve as de compressors while turning the engine electrically. The ample size of the flywheel dynamo would even allow the vehicle to be propelled under electric power alone.

Deys design innovations extended to the drivetrain. An electrically operated clutch would join the engine and transmission and would gradually engage as motor speed increased, generating more dynamo power. The transmission, a three-speed constant mesh design engaged by a sliding key system. Dey specified half the gears be cut from rawhide to reduce noise. Gearshifts were executed by turning the steering column selector wheel. The electric clutch automatically disengages and reengages the engine power during gear changes.

The motor is a more conventional opposed twin of 6½" x 7" capacity with a novel centrifuge controlled automatic ignition system. The chassis is of tubular construction and the back half doubles as exhaust and muffler. A more conventional car would have had a tiller but the Armstrong gets a steering wheel again years ahead of its time.

In 1896 Roger Mechanical Carriage Company executives formed the American Horseless Carriage Company and announced Dey's design as their new product. Horseless Age magazine in 1896 published the following description of the new motor carriage.

"The flywheel is constructed as a dynamo, which by rotary charges a storage battery, carried in the vehicle. At the time of starting the carriage, the motorman turns a switch which discharges the storage battery through the dynamo, converting it for a few seconds into a motor, which, being upon the main crank shaft, gives rotation and does away with the necessity of starting the flywheel by hand. After the motor gives a few turns, the cylinder take up their work, and the battery is disconnected from the dynamo which then acts as a flywheel."

"The flywheel dynamo furnishes the current for the induction coil of the sparking mechanism as well as the electric lamps at night, thus doing away with the necessity of going to a charging station."

"Attached to the crank shaft is a devise for changing the point of ignition in the combustion chamber, perfectly controlling the point of ignition, acting as a "lead" and allowing the motor to be operated at a variable speed according to work done"

Mr. Dey writing in Horseless Age at a later date added;

"In addition to the above the machine was provided with a magnetic clutch that automatically disconnected and connected the engine every time the gear shift lever was moved"

Mr Dey also stated that the Armstrong built phaeton would be the only example built. It was basically a prototype but it was used regularly on the road and was a fully functional motorcar.

The turmoil of these early days of the motoring industry saw many companies fold before ever getting a product to market and so was the fate of the Armstrong. Both the Roger Mechanical Carriage Company and the American Horseless Carriage Company folded in 1896. The Armstrong stayed at the Bridgeport works and was not sold until many decades later.

Languishing in the corner of an old factory the Armstrong was considered an odd curiosity. An unfortunate flood had done a good deal of harm to the carriage but it remained in tact and complete though time was having its way.

The Armstrong remained at the factory till 1963 when a long time employee moved it to his home garage. It was there that Dennis David discovered the machine some 32 years later. Mr David acquired it and it and it passed into the McGee Collection. This collection was primarily concerned with Connecticut made automobiles so was right at home. It was determined that the Armstrong was too important to languish and it was decided to pass the car along to a collector who had the ambition to rebuild the historic machine.

Robin Loder an experienced UK based veteran enthusiast acquired the car and set about on the remarkable task of brining the Armstrong back to operational condition. Much of the work completed Roger Steer of Brentclass. Many years of painstaking work and the Armstrong returned to operational condition. During this period the Veteran Car Club dated the Armstrong as 1896.

Loder demonstrated the car and was rightly proud of his accomplishment. He eventually sold the car back to the current American owner.

In 2015 the Armstrong was sent to Holman Engineering to solve a few lingering technical issues unresolved in the restoration. Under the leadership of George Holman his team set about going through every inch of the Armstrong with the goal of making it a fully usable automobile. Extensive work on the electrical and mechanical systems restored the machines full operational performance.

One major flaw of the original design had to be overcome. The tremendous power of the engine was exerted on carriage type artillery wheels. These carriage wheels were never designed to transmit torque. Fracturing had been found as well as evidence of repeated repairs. An ingenious reinforcement was devised and the wheels are now more than up to the task of safely propelling the Armstrong over the road.

Holman Engineering's extensive work was done with the intention of making the Armstrong capable of participating in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. If entered it would be one of, if not the earliest American automobiles to participate since the Duryea Brothers entry in 1896.

It is likely that this vehicle is the first in history to display many features that would become ubiquitous. There is no question that Armstrong beat Cadillac to the self-starter by a staggering 16 years! There is little doubt that the Armstrong is the oldest vehicle extant using modern style hybrid drive. The Armstrong survives today as an amazing piece of automotive innovation and proves there is nothing new under the sun.

Descriptions & pictures by bonhams

Production Start 1896