The Toyota Prius may have popularized the concept, but hybrid cars existed long before the now-ubiquitous Toyota hatchback. The Owen Magnetic featured on this episode of Jay Leno's Garage dates to 1916—about 80 years before the Prius launched.
It's important to remember that, at the turn of the 20th century, battery-electric cars were quite common. But just like today, they were limited by range and charging infrastructure. The Owen Magnetic was pitched as an electric car with a range-extending gasoline generator—not unlike the former Chevrolet Volt or the BMW i3 REx.
The car is a series hybrid, with the internal-combustion engine acting exclusively as a generator for an electric motor, which actually drives the wheels, rather than a parallel hybrid, like most modern hybrid cars.
1916 Owen Magnetic on Jay Leno's Garage
The Buda inline-6 engine isn't physically connected to the drivetrain. A horseshoe magnet is attached to the end of the crankshaft, which spins around an armature attached to an electric motor, which in turn drives the rear wheels. In 1916, an advantage of this setup was that it did away with a conventional transmission, making the Owen Magnetic accessible to people who couldn't drive stick, Leno noted. It also enables regenerative braking, just like modern hybrids and electric cars.
Leno has had this car for about 30 years, and it was not in good condition when he got it, as it had sat exposed to the elements for decades in Norway. With no reproduction parts available for this exceedingly rare car, Leno's shop had to fabricate nearly everything. The distinctive angled valve cover with "Owen Magnetic" lettering was replicated using 3D printing. Leno also installed modern Optima batteries.
Watch the full video to see this piece of hybrid history cruising around the streets surrounding Leno's famous garage.