I've always maintained, loudly, and with a lot of dramatic hand motions, that Jalopnik readers are the best readers of anything, anywhere. That goes for bibles and copies of The Utne Reader, too. They're great because they sometimes send me books with amazing information, like how VW had hybrid tech back in 1979.
The book in question is called The Complete Book of Electric Vehicles by the fantastically-named Sheldon Shacket, and was sent to me in a package filled with a bunch of other amazing old magazines by Evan Morrison, one of our readers. Thanks, Evan!
The book is full of fascinating stuff, but what I want to talk about here is something I've never encountered before in all my obsessive consuming of air-cooled-era Volkswagenery. It's a prototype Volkswagen Hybrid-Electric City Taxi, built around a modified VW Type II microbus. The book is from 1979, so this must have existed at least some time prior to that.
The taxi-fied bus is interesting in itself — VW didn't just slap a taximeter and some illuminated TAXI signs on a yellow bus, they added an automatic, electrically-operated sliding door, four big, comfy-looking seats, and a bulletproof (!) driver/passenger dividing bulkhead. I guess we forget how perpetually pissed and violent everyone was in the '70s.
But that's not the amazing part. The amazing part is the drivetrain. It uses the standard, upright-fan VW 1600cc air-cooled flat-four. That same 50HP engine that was used in the Beetle, Karmann-Ghia, Thing, and all those variants. The picture shows the Type I engine with its tall fan, and not the flatter Type III or Type IV engines, which is interesting, since VW buses of that era would have used the Type IV engine.
Along with this standard VW engine is a somewhat different-looking transaxle. The difference is that the transaxle has an input shaft coming from a Bosch DC shunt electric motor. The motor can be powered either by 11 storage batteries to drive the car, or can be run as a generator by the gas engine to recharge the batteries.
That all sounds very familiar in concept now because it's essentially how all those Priuses and other hybrids work. And VW had a working version of this back in 1979?
Incredibly, I have not been able to find any information on the internet about the 1970s VW hybrid system, aside from direct references to this book. I'm fascinated, though. The use of the regular Type I (Beetle) engine suggest that this could have been installed into a Beetle!
I mean, sure, a Beetle that would likely have given up nearly all its luggage space to house those eleven batteries, but still! What if VW had continued down this road? A Hybrid Beetle could have possibly competed better with the more modern cars coming from Japan, and would have been ahead of the emissions requirements that were part of the reason it eventually left the US market.
Of course, those heavy batteries are still a huge factor. Even the stats listed for the bus aren't too impressive — a top speed of about 65, and taking a solid 30 seconds to get to 60, while making 20 MPG doesn't sound that compelling — until you remember this is in the Taxi/bus body with the heavy electric door system, and all those seats and bulletproof glass walls. With that in mind, 20 MPG is actually pretty damn good, especially when compared with other taxis, like the Checker, of that era.
I wonder how a version of this, installed in a Super Beetle, could have done? Let's say the battery allotment was dropped to an amount that just filled the rear luggage well, leaving the Super Beetle's decent-sized trunk open, so it could at least compete with cars that had luggage space. Could such a Hybrid Beetle have gotten 40 MPG or so? Even with batteries, I bet the car would still have weighed around 2500 lbs. Would anyone have cared?
It's an interesting thought, and I wonder what happened to this experimental hybrid bus and the whole air-cooled hybrid program. I wonder if there's some old German guy who gets a pang of regret in his gut every time he sees a Prius hum by?
It's important to realize there's still so much not on the internet. I love old books.