If the Volt looked like
Jay Leno's 1916 Owen Magnetic, Government Motors (GM) wouldn't be able to produce them fast enough to
satisfy demand rather than having them languish on dealers' lots and scheduling a
shut-down this summer. The "wow" capacity of the Magnetic alone would potentially induce car buyers
to charge over to Chevy dealerships and drain their accounts. The Owen Magnetic was one of quite a few
turn-of-the-last-century electric and hybrid cars. I have written before about the purely electric cars
that were produced by Ford and other companies back in the 1910s and 1920s. They were green when green
wasn't cool (*). Women drivers loved them because it was not necessary to hand-crank the
The Owen Magnetic is more
like a Prius than a Volt from the standpoint of locomotion. It uses a gasoline-powered engine to drive
a generator that charges a battery that powers the electric motor. There is no mechanical linkage between
the engine and the wheels other than the motor shaft. The Owen Magnetic is more like the Volt than the
Prius, though, from the standpoint of price. It was so expensive for the available performance that
not many were sold. The Owen Magnetic was unlike either the Prius or the Volt from the standpoint of
appearance and luxury. It is beautiful whereas the Prius and Volt are butt-ugly. The Owen Magnetic was
plugged in ads as "The Car of a Thousand Speeds."
I look forward to Jay's column in
Popular Mechanics each month. His famous humor combined with an incredible knowledge
of auto mechanics and history always makes for an interesting read. Per Jay, "The Owen Magnetic's technological
leap was its electromagnetic transmission. Invented by the wonderfully named Justus B. Entz, an electrical
engineer from New York who once worked with Thomas Edison, the electromagnetic transmission compactly
housed both a 24-volt generator and an electric traction motor. The crankshaft of a 75-hp gas engine
was attached to the generator, which sent juice to the traction motor, which in turn powered the rear
wheels." The Owen Magnetic also broke new ground in regenerative braking since, "with the Owen Magnetic,
you rarely have to get on the brakes unless you need to stop completely, like at a stop sign. If you're
going 35 to 40 mph, you engage "regen" and you coast, or freewheel. As soon as you hit 25 mph, you feel
the transmission go eeehhhhrrr! And the car slows right down to 3 or 4 mph. Plus, you can watch gauges
that show the batteries charging." I'm wondering whether Toyota is paying royalties to Owen heirs for
use of that intellectual property (IP) in the Prius.
sophisticated "relay-and-wiring shift mechanism," commanded by a multi-position shifter on the steering
column, is mounted under the hood alongside the steering column. "I haven't opened mine up because it
seems to work fine. And, quite frankly, I'm frightened to poke around in there. A plate on it says,
'If something goes wrong, do not attempt to work on this yourself. Send it back to the factory.'
Who would want a car that a blacksmith couldn't fix?"
Car and Driver writers don't produce
lines like that in their reviews!
So, why didn't the electric and hybrid cars of yesteryear dominate
and flourish rather than fossil fuel powered internal combustion engine vehicles? Simple, the technology
simply was not ready for prime time. Neither is it ready today. I wish it was, but it's not. When a
battery-powered Boeing 747 can transport 400 people and a full payload of cargo from New York to Tokyo,
then we will be able to say we have arrived and the dinosaurs can rest in eternal peace.
- Here is the page for the
1916 Owen Magnetic on Jay Leno's
- Here is an article on 100-year-old-electric vehicles on his
Jay Leno's Garage website.
- Here is Jay's article on the
Owen Magnetic in
Note: If this private collection
wasn't owned by someone as universally admired as Jay Leno, the "99%" would claim he was just a rich
guy (1%) who has more than he deserves at their expense. An effigy of his
head on a pike would be a fitting tribute. Jay uses the fruits of his labor to help
preserve and restore history, as do many self-made wealthy people. The "99%" never want to pay to "share"
in the results of others' works. Yes, there are plenty of scumbag rich people, but have you looked at
the actions of some of the non-rich?
The Owen Magnetic from Jay Leno's Garage
These images have been chosen for their uniqueness. Subject matter ranges from historic events, to really cool phenomena in science and engineering,
to relevant place, to ingenious contraptions, to interesting products (which now has its own dedicated
Featured Product category).
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Posted May 3, 2012