Believe it or not, the Owen Magnetic is the Chevrolet Volt of its day, with no mechanical connection between engine and wheels.
You probably know that manufacturers dabbled in electric cars even as far back as the turn of the century, but did you also know they had actual hybrids? Well, the 1916 Owen Magnetic is a hybrid and it’s almost unbelievably advanced, at least in principle, for a vehicle that is now over 100 years old.
Its innovation is that its front-mounted gasoline engine doesn’t actually turn the rear wheels. In fact, it’s not connected to them at all, at least not directly, and what it does is keep a set of batteries topped up, which in turn provide power for the electric traction motor. Does it sound familiar?
We’re pretty sure it does because that’s a lot like how a Chevrolet Volt works, or one of Honda’s new generation of hybrids, such as the Jazz e:HEV. They didn’t necessarily do it to improve the vehicle’s efficiency, though, and the thinking behind this electrified powertrain was to simplify the driving experience.
You no longer had a clutch or any actual gears to shift, and the car was always very smooth. Jay Leno owns one of the last few Owen Magnetics still in existence, although if you check out his video for Jay Leno's Garage, you’ll see that it was very close to being lost forever - a lot of work was put into turning it back into a car and getting it on the road again.
Now, even though it is knocking on 105 years old, Jay says he drives it regularly and it doesn’t give him any trouble. It is pretty much stock, although he did make a couple of modifications to it, such as adding modern batteries that are far more reliable than the ones the vehicle originally came with.