Jay Leno gets a close look at the coolest hybrid you’ve never heard of.
Did you know Briggs & Stratton built a car? Yes, that Briggs & Stratton, the company best known for the small engines used on lawnmowers. And it’s not just any car, but a hybrid … built in 1980 no less. Honestly, we didn’t know such a machine existed until this video cropped up at Jay Leno’s Garage, but when we saw this six-wheeled hatchback with styling not unlike a 1980’s L-Body Dodge Charger, we couldn’t not click on it. And once we watched the video, we knew we couldn’t not share it with you because it’s actually very impressive.
This is strictly a one-off concept car designed to be a technology demonstrator, and actually, its top speed isn’t so impressive. According to the video, Richard Petty managed to get this car to a whopping 68 mph on a closed course. On the streets of California, Leno and Briggs & Stratton Engineering Technician Craig Claerbout achieved 60 mph, but when you realize there’s just an 18-horsepower (13-kilowatt) air-cooled twin-cylinder Briggs engine under the hood, that’s not such bad speed. An electric motor is connected to the engine, which then connects to a four-speed manual transmission sending power to the first set of rear wheels
While the cars were powered by a six-cylinder engine, power for the wheels was based upon the same electromagnetic principle that propelled the Battleship U.S.S. New Mexico.
Automobile author Henry B. Lent described the drive mechanism thus:The drive mechanism had no direct connection between the engine and the rear wheels. Instead of a flywheel, a generator and a horseshoe shaped magnet were attached to the rear of the engine’s crank shaft. On the forward end of the car’s drive shaft, was an electric motor with an armature fitted into an air space inside the whirling magnet. Electric current, transmitted by the engine’s generator and magnet attached to the armature of the electrical motor, providing the energy to turn the drive shaft and propel the engine’s rear wheels. Speed for the car was controlled by a small lever adjacent to the steering wheel.
The first Owen Magnetic was introduced at the 1915 New York auto show when Justus B. Entz‘s electric transmission was fitted to the Owen automobile: “R.M. Owen have leased the large new three story fireproof building at the corner of Fifth avenue and One Hundred and Forty-second street, New York, where they will build the new Owen Magnetic motor cars.” Walter C. Baker, of Cleveland, Ohio, owned the patents on the Entz transmission, thus each of the 250 Owen Magnetic automobiles produced in New York was built under license. The former Owen plant still exists and is presently a self-storage facility.
The car became as famous as the company’s clientele, which included Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. Owen Magnetics were advertised as “The Car of a Thousand Speeds”.
Before the days of the automatic gearbox, the petrol-electric transmission enjoyed a certain vogue, particularly as it was invented in the era of the non-synchromesh or ‘crash’ gearbox. However although the petrol-electric was easy to use, it was also expensive to build, bulky and heavy, which made it more suitable for commercial vehicles (such as the Tilling- Stevens) than for the private car.
There were one or two notable exceptions to this general rule, however, and one of the more ingenious electric transmissions was conceived just before World War 1 by Ray M. Owen of the Baker, Rauch & Lang company of Cleveland, Ohio, who were renowned for their Baker and Raulang battery electric cars.
The Entz Transmission
Owen adapted the Entz transmission, which was designed for use in the new generation of oil-engined battleships (such as the 1919 New Mexico), for automotive use, and began production of a luxury car with this form of drive in 1914. Under its original name of Owen Magnetic, the ‘Car of a Thousand Speeds’ was not very successful, but by 1920 J. L. Crown had taken over the design rights, and was producing cars in a factory at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.