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Ferdinand Porsche’s groundbreaking creation over a century ago wasn’t a commercial success. But it laid the foundations for all-wheel-drive systems and serial hybrid drives

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The Lohner-Porsche had four electric motors driving each wheel hub directly without any mechanical connection to the axle.

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Who should be credited for developing the world’s first all-wheel-drive vehicle has often been a subject of contention. While the Spyker 60 HP presented in 1903 by Dutch brothers Jacobus and Hendrik-Jan Spijker is widely considered the first such automobile, Daimler claims Paul Daimler’s Dernburg-Wagen was the world’s first all-wheel-drive passenger vehicle. The Spyker was indeed the first mechanical four-wheel drive, and the Dernburg-Wagen was probably the first real all-wheel-drive passenger car, but there was another significant machine before these two that put all-wheel drive — although of a different kind — to successful use. And it was developed by none other than the great Ferdinand Porsche himself.

Having started work on a car for Viennese coachmaker Ludwig Lohner & Co as early as 1896, Porsche unveiled his creation at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. Called Lohner Porsche, it was an electric car with wheel-hub motors driving the front wheels. Encouraged by the response it got, Porsche soon followed it up with a model featuring four wheel-hub electric motors, technically making it the world’s first all-wheel drive passenger car. It was also the world’s first car to feature four-wheel brakes as well.

The same year, the visionary engineering genius coupled his battery-powered wheel-hub drive system with two water-cooled 3.5 horsepower DeDion Bouton petrol engines, which, however, had no mechanical connection to a drive axle. Instead, these internal combustion units were used to power an electric generator that would supply the four wheel-hub motors with electricity. In effect, the Lohner Porsche Semper Vivus, as the new variant was called, was not just a four-wheel drive car — it also debuted the world’s first ever serial hybrid drive, more than 110 years ago. Although incredibly futuristic for the time, the unconventional nature of the drive resulted in the Lohner Porsche from being credited as the first all-wheel drive automobile.

Shown at the 1901 Paris motor show, the Semper Vivus drew a lot of attention, but Porsche couldn’t turn this interest into sales orders. The main reasons for this were the fact that the car still looked too crude and bare-bones, with its engines exposed and the rear axle unsprung. Even after a few revisions, Porsche could only sell a handful of these cars.

A commercial success it was not, but with this car, Herr Porsche laid the foundation for all-wheel drive, all-wheel braking and hybrid technology in one fell swoop.