The automotive industry is on the cusp of the Electrical Age. The powering of cars with electricity is nothing new, having previously cropped up elsewhere in history. Much like other alternative drives. This is because designers have been grappling with the question of what makes for the best form of drive for at least 250 years now.
This article is based on a lecture from the series “Unusual Stories from ŠKODA History”, organised by the ŠKODA Museum. The lecture on the history of vehicle drives was written by ŠKODA archive coordinator Lukáš Nachtmann
Even though no one was in any doubt, in the first decade of the 20th century, that the petrol internal combustion engine was the future, designers still worked on other solutions. In the early 1930s, these endeavours spawned the first automobiles with diesel units. High taxes and fuel shortages during the economic crisis and the war years steered engineers towards experiments with natural gas.
LAURIN & KLEMENT test vehicle from 1919, featuring a gas generator that ran on charcoal
Czech designers also proved to be resourceful. As early as 1919, a LAURIN & KLEMENT freight vehicle with a gas generator was produced. Then there was the 256 G van boasting a 2.5-tonne payload, with a six-cylinder engine to deliver ample power of 60 PS. Both superstructures and integrated solutions were thought up, and not only for freight vehicles. Alternative drives were also found in ŠKODA tractors.
The ŠKODA 256 G, factory-converted to run on wood gas, had a generator discreetly incorporated behind the cab and offered more-than-ample power of 60 PS.
During the fuel crisis in the 1930s and 1940s, gas generators using either cheap and widely available wood or coal gas (a coking plant by-product) as a source were even mounted in passenger vehicles. ŠKODA made prototypes of the RAPID with a generator either at the front or at the back. Initially, these auxiliary units were clunky and obvious, but subsequent prototypes concealed gas-drive components within the bodywork, resulting in a stylistically elegant car fit for everyday use.
The scarcity of fuel during the crisis and, subsequently, the war prompted the design of several RAPIDs fitted with a gas generator.