I have a friend who is unusually good at salvaging crap. Just this weekend he found, in an abandoned house, a perfect rear bumper (and brackets!) for my Beetle. That’s amazing enough, but he also found a set of NASA documents from the 1970s. Surprisingly, one of those volumes had, of all things, some fascinating information about a largely forgotten NASA electric car project. Reading about that car, it’s amazing how far the technology and the perception of electric cars has come.
The volume itself is a record of the 1979 NASA Authorization hearings before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications. Of course, it’s full of interesting stuff—this was the period where the Space Shuttle was being completed, and NASA was still hoping to get it flying in time to help save Skylab—but what really caught my eye was this little picture of a strange little car:
That little car is the Garret-Airesearch Electric Hybrid Vehicle. And, yes, the Garrett in question is the same one many of you gearheads will know as the turbocharger-making company. It seems that during this time, NASA was providing “total project management” for the Department of Energy’s Near-Term Electric Vehicle Development Program, and this Garrett-Airesearch car was one of the results.
There’s not a whole lot of information about this car online. At first I wasn’t even sure it existed beyond just some drawings, but I soon found out that an actual one was built, and it’s even weirder than I first suspected.
What’s interesting about the Garrett-Airesearch car is that it’s actually a hybrid vehicle, even though it’s a pure electric car. Based on what we all know about hybrid cars, that makes no sense: in hybrids as we understand them, even if only the electric motor powers the wheels, there’s still always some sort of combustion engine involved, like in a Prius or a Volt or a Karma or whatever.
The Garrett-Airesearch car, though, was a very different kind of hybrid: it was a flywheel-battery hybrid.
That means that there’s no combustion engine involved, just two separate ways to store energy: a set of lead-acid batteries, and a spinning flywheel mounted in a vacuum-holding housing. Flywheel-powered electric cars have existed before, like Chrysler’s aborted Patriot LeMans car, but as far as I know, this is the first time a flywheel has been paired with batteries to produce a general-use hybrid-electric car.