Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria engaged a young national serviceman, Ferdinand Porsche, as his driver. Jacob Lohner was coachbuilder to the monarchy in Vienna-Florisdorf and wanted to make battery-electric cars. So, in 1896 he hired assistant manager of the Vereinigte Elektrizitäts-AG to design one. It was the same Ferdinand Porsche, and his master stroke was to make the wheels electric motors.
Batteries burdened electric cars and the Lohners suffered as much as any. Yet in 1900 they went swiftly enough for Porsche to rise early one September morning and set a speed record over 10km (6.21 miles) of the Semmering Pass. Climbing 1,300 feet (396 m), up a 4 per cent gradient, with sharp bends and a gravelly surface, he averaged 25mph (40 kph). Sporting contests for Porsches were a good way of showing off.
Electric engines in the wheels saved drive-shafts, gears and complication. Porsche added petrol engines to top-up the batteries, creating the world’s first hybrid he called Mixed-Drive, yet like the visionary Leonardo, inventing helicopters before he had the means to build them, Porsche was ahead of his time. Some ideas were capricious; Porsche planned helicopters too. In 1908 he designed the Fesselflieger (tethered flyer) or Schraubenflieger that would have lifted a man, a machine gun, and a telephone on a 1,000 foot cable with an electrically driven rotor. Intended to be a silent hovering artillery spotter, it wasn’t his last military machine.
Weight was a constant bother. E W Hart of Luton patronised bright ideas paying 15,000 French Francs for a Lohner with four hub-mounted motors. It weighed 4,000lb (1,814.4 kg) so it was not very fast. Porsche’s aim with mixed-drive was to simplify cars, although he never lost sight of the advantages of driving each wheel. "Skidding on sharp corners or on slippery roads is done away with, or at least only happens briefly, as if the vehicle were drawn by a horse," he wrote.
The Lohner-Porsche not only had four-wheel drive but, through reversing the current in its electric motors, four-wheel brakes as well. Another Lohner Electromobil gave 7 horse power at 120 rpm for only twenty minutes, weighed 2,651 lb (1,205 kg), but at 34,028 crowns was expensive. Lohner-Porsches started easily, which suited central European winters and were popular with municipalities. Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg operated Lohner buses and in 1909 London fire brigade bought them.
Yet laws of physics inhibited development of wheel-hub motors. Cars’ behaviour depends a lot on the ratio of sprung to unsprung weight. Aluminium alloy wheels with light tyres spring nimbly over bumps while inertia in the bulk of a car keeps the occupants on an even keel. Heavy electric engines in the wheels were the very antithesis of this, so despite their apparent logic they lay almost forgotten for the next 100 years.
Well, they’ve been reinvented.
Battery electric and fuel cell vehicles are tempting them back. Protean Drive™ is an elegant concept designed as in-wheel motors. Typically an engine delivers high speed and low torque. The gearbox lowers the speed and increases torque. An 18in road wheel doing 75mph (120kph) rotates at around 1,000rpm. In conventional electric-hybrids the same applies: A high speed, low torque motor driving through a gearbox delivers lower speed and higher torque.
In Protean drives the parts of the motor that generate the torque (the coils and magnets) are made as large as possible, an ‘inside-out’ design with the magnets mounted to the rotor on the outside of the stator instead of having a rotating central shaft. At 72kg (165.4lb) two of the motors weigh 30kg (76.4lb) less than a BMW i3 electric drivetrain but the wheels still weigh more than usual. Development work by Lotus suggests that the sprung-unsprung weight problem is manageable and the elimination of driveshafts that so attracted the pioneer Porsche still applies. Protean Electric of Farnham has been developing the concept for eight years, it can be made to fit wheels from 14in to 20in and will be built first in China.
Porsche changed jobs. Ambitious and restless, in 1905 at the age of 30 Jacob Lohner's workshop at Donaufeldstrasse 77 Florisdorf was too small for him. He joined Austro-Daimler in Wiener-Neustadt as technical director, going on to create an automotive dynasty. It was just as well he did not stay with the Archduke. On 28 June 1914 he might have been at the wheel of the big Graf und Stift on the parade route at Sarajevo towards the fatal encounter with Gavrilo Princip.