Porsche’s first electric vehicle
When Porsche enlarged its range of post-2022 electric cars, from the Taycan and Macan to other models in the range, it was déjà vu for the German marque, because Ferdinand Porsche’s first design effort was an electric car, back in 1898.
The key to this interesting story came in a roundabout way, during a visit to the amazing Sapphire Coast Historic Vehicle Club, on the NSW South Coast. We were viewing this club’s museum-like car collection when we noticed an exhibit we didn’t expect to see: a replica of the first vehicle designed by Ferdinand Porsche – the Egger-Lohner electric C2 Phaeton.
Subsequent research revealed that in 2104, the original vehicle was installed in the Porsche Museum in Germany, following extensive restoration of this vehicle that had been resting quietly in an Austrian barn since 1902. Much of the wood rotted while it was parked for 112 years, but the basic mechanicals and electrics remained intact.
The Egger-Lohner electric vehicle C2 Phaeton model – P1 for short – now has pride of place at its museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. A 22-year-old Ferdinand Porsche, who would start his own Porsche brand in 1931, designed the P1 for carmaker Jacob Lohner.
After a trip to the USA, Ludwig Lohner, the owner of that firm, became convinced that the age of the horse and carriage was ending and he asked Ferdinand Porsche to come up with an electric drive train.
The first car made by Porsche for the Egger-Lohner company was, like most production vehicles of 1898, an electric car and its primary competitors were steam cars and other electrics. Gasoline and diesels weren’t very popular at the time, primarily due to the difficulties involved in starting them, the horrific smell and fumes they produced, plus the challenge of getting fuel.
In a reverse situation of that facing today’s electric vehicles, electric recharging was much more readily available than petroleum.
On the Egger-Lohner C.2 Phaeton, Ferdinand Porsche etched P1 into all the major components, standing for Porsche #1. It appeared on the streets of Vienna, Austria, on June 26, 1898 and its first serious test came in a race for electric cars in September 1899, in which the contesting vehicles had to complete a 40km course.
With three passengers on board and Ferdinand at the wheel, the P1 beat the competition, with more than half the field failing to go the required distance. The event was an international exhibition of 19 electric vehicle manufacturers and the P1 won it by 18 minutes.
Ferdinand Porsche drove the vehicle and he successfully navigated gradients, ‘high-speed’ sections and an efficiency test. The P1 won not only the race, but also the top place for efficiency, by consuming the least energy while in urban traffic.
Although Ferdinand was working on the design of a simplified wheel-hub electric motor , the P1 employed a rear-mounted drive unit. (Interesting that this first Porsche design had a rear-mounted powerplant.) Herr Porsche’s octagonal electric motor – so named because of its housing shape – weighed a very modest 130kg and produced an equally modest 3bhp (2.2kW).
That doesn’t seem to be enough power to haul 860kg of vehicle weight, plus 500kg of batteries, but, thanks to electric motor torque, the top speed of the P1 was 34km/h. (When operated in normal driving mode the P1 had a range of 80km that was further than many gasoline-powered prototypes of the day could manage.
An overboost function enabled 5bhp (3.7kW) out of the motor, for dealing with steep inclines and that performance-boosting feature has been repeated in the modern electric Taycan.
Although the P1 didn’t have progressive gearing, as such, it did employ a 12-speed current controller that put power to wheels. Six of those 12 steps were for forward control, two were for reverse and four provided braking.
In those days there was no semi-conductor control for electric motors, so motor speed had to be controlled by varying the field current and the rotor current. Applying full battery voltage to a static motor would melt all the wiring, so power had to be applied by a series of resistances that were progressively switched out as speed increased.
Increasing the field current increased torque; increasing EMF applied to the rotor increased speed and shorting the rotor while maintaining field current provided braking. Over-speed sent current back into the battery, providing a degree of regenerative charging.
(These old controllers remained in use for a very long time and old-style metropolitan electric trains had that characteristic, progressive jerking as the controllers did their job.)
Three more P1s were made, after which Ferdinand joined Lohner as chief designer and went on to create the Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus – the world’s first hybrid car.
The name Semper Vivus – always alive – was coined to reflect the fact that its petrol engines could take over battery charging when the batteries ran flat. The engines drove electric wheel motors via a pair of generators, making it a series-hybrid design.
The prototype was front wheel drive, with an electric motor in each front hub. Subsequent versions were all wheel drive, with all four wheels driven by their own motors. The Semper Vivus’ two gasoline engines were each connected to an electric generator, supplying both the wheel-hub motors and accumulators with electricity.
The combined weight of the electric motors, 44 batteries and two petrol engines was ‘significant’!
The prototype was exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and orders rolled in, but customers’ preferences helped to change the design into one with a single engine in the rear of the car, alleviating many of the prototype’s problems.
Porsche the genius
So, who was this young engineer that managed to turn the automotive world on its head at the very beginning of the 20th century?
Ferdinand Porsche was born on 3 September 1875 in Maffersdorf, Bohemia – the third child of Anna and Anton Porsche. When the automobile was invented Ferdinand Porsche was 11 years old. He was particularly interested in electricity and at age 13 he installed electric doorbells at his parents’ house and at 16 added electric lighting.
Following his plumbing apprenticeship in his father’s business, Ferdinand Porsche’s abilities and his interest in technology led him to begin his career at the Vereinigten Elektrizitätswerke of Bela Egger & Co in Vienna.
Shortly before the turn of the century he went to work for Jacob Lohner, who was a supplier to the Austrian royal court.
In 1906, Ferdinand Porsche moved to Austro Daimler in Wiener Neustadt, where he remained for 17 years and eventually headed, as General Director. He developed aerodynamically-shaped, high-performance limousines, winning the Prince Heinrich Tour.
He also designed trucks and the Landwehr train for the Emperor’s army that could travel on roads and railroad tracks. His aircraft engine designs gained him an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Vienna.
After the First World War he built a two-seater sports car, the Sascha, which took first place in the Targa Florio road race.
In 1923 Ferdinand Porsche moved to Stuttgart, to become Technical Director at Daimler, where he assumed responsibility for the development of the famous S, SS and SSK models, while also helping to develop truck and aero-engines.
When his contract expired, he returned to Austria and was General Director of Steyr.
In 1931 Porsche went into business for himself, starting his own design company in Stuttgart. From that, came the VW ‘Beetle’, post-War Porsche sports cars and the rest is history.
2023 Porsche Taycan electric sports car