Nowadays, you can even find hybrid powertrains in pickup trucks. But the idea of a hybrid internal combustion-and-electric car isn’t that new. One of Ferdinand Porsche’s first cars was a hybrid, for example. And recently, Jay Leno spent some time with a little-known antique hybrid from his collection: a 1916 Owen Magnetic.
The Owen Magnetic is a genuine antique hybrid car
When the first cars hit the road, it wasn’t certain that internal combustion engines would be the way forward. So, in addition to gasoline-powered cars, some cars ran on steam, and some ran on electricity. But, then as now, electric cars had a problem: a lack of charging stations, Hagerty explains. The Owen Magnetic tried to address that.
The Owen Magnetic is the creation of one Justus B. Entz, an electrical engineer once employed by Thomas Edison, Classic Cars reports. But the car’s history wasn’t necessarily smooth.
Entz’s prototype appeared in 1898, but a production version didn’t come until 1907, the Edison Tech Center reports. At the time, Entz was employed by the Electric Vehicle Company, which came under new ownership and stopped making EVs in 1909. He tried to sell the patents elsewhere but got into a scuffle over royalty payments. It wasn’t until Entz went into business with Raymond Owen that the first Owen Magnetic appeared in 1914.
Like modern hybrids, the Owen Magnetic has an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. However, this antique hybrid car works differently than most modern ones. The 75-hp 6.1-liter inline-six engine under the hood doesn’t drive the rear wheels directly, Hagerty and Popular Mechanics explain. Instead, rather than a driveshaft, the engine turns flywheel in an iron housing, Car and Driver explains.
This flywheel—which is essentially a magnet—has several wire coils arranged around it. And when it spins, it creates a magnetic current within the coils, Autoweek explains. This creates electricity for the electric motor that actually turns the rear wheels, Hemmings explains.
While it seems complicated, this simply makes the Owen Magnetic a ‘series hybrid,’ Hemmings explains. The Chevrolet Volt is also a series hybrid, one that only uses its gasoline engine to charge batteries or power the electric motor, InsideEVs explains. Admittedly, the Volt’s powertrain is significantly more advanced than what the Owen Magnetic has. However, despite its age, the antique hybrid car has rechargeable batteries and even rudimentary regenerative braking, Classic Cars reports.
Jay Leno’s 1916 Owen Magnetic is “one of the rarest, most unusual, fascinating, nobody’s-ever-heard-of automobiles” in his garage
Jay Leno has owned his 1916 Owen Magnetic for “about 30 years.” But it took him a lot of effort to find it. The original owner bought it new and brought it back to Norway where it sat for 50 years, Autoweek reports. And circa 2004, it only had 9000 miles on it.
But even with so few miles, the Owen Magnetic was in rough shape. It sat for years before Jay Leno bought it because “oil leaked from every facet” of the porous valve cover. And because no one has a spare Owen valve cover, Jay Leno 3D-printed a plastic copy of the original and had a new aluminum replacement made. Plus, by the time he bought the car, the wood and leather in the interior had basically disintegrated.
Today, though, the antique hybrid is fully restored, and the driving experience has been worth it. The major benefit of the Owen Magnetic’s powertrain is that there’s no clutch or gears involved, Jay Leno explains. There is a ‘transmission’ of sorts, but it controls your acceleration and top speed by changing the current flowing to the electric motor. And while the Owen Magnetic only has rear brakes, the electric motor also doubles as an electric brake.
Starting the 1916 Owen Magnetic is a bit more complicated than turning a key. And the fuel gauge isn’t in the cabin, but directly on the fuel tank in the rear. However, once you’re moving, it’s an incredibly smooth car to drive, especially for an antique. It’s “obviously much smoother and quieter than a Model T,” Jay Leno says. And there’s no need to grind gears or constantly shift.
Finding one is extremely tough
There’s a very good reason why it was hard for Jay Leno to find his Owen Magnetic: it’s extremely rare. It originally sold for around $6000, Driving.ca reports; that’s the modern equivalent of $157,800. And today, there might only be a dozen or so still around, Hagerty reports.
That being said, an Owen Magnetic has occasionally appeared at an auction. One sold at a 2019 Bonhams auction for $128,800. And Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum has one in its collection. It’s not exactly modern, but as a piece of technological history, it’s worth checking out.
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