For every type of fuel you can fill your modern tanks up with, there have been many other contesting fuel-sources over the years that have, at one point or another, competed to proliferate as the dominant fuel. Indeed, gasoline is a hard habit to break, but being the limited resource it is has led to shortages in wartimes past that allowed a few other fuels to take trial runs and forced research and development into a field that has helped lay the foundation for the modern alternate-fuel cars we appreciate today. By we, I of course mean hippies and the tree-hugging EPA, because I myself have no problem idling a semi for eight hours just to run the ac for my own personal comfort – I’ll leave the planet-saving to the rest of you while I partake in the twilight of the gasoline glory days of with my V-8 ‘64 Chevy II. (By the way, I have leaking valve guides that allow bypassing oil into the combustion chamber and when I stomp on the fossil-fuel pedal I can lay down a smokescreen that would make Batman jealous.)
For the rest of you responsible, world-citizens, you’ll be pleased to know that we aren’t all as environmentally careless as me. (I do actually care about the environment, but I’m not going to let the gas-guzzling ‘60s and ‘70s pass me by while I get stuck with the Nissan Leaf! Just ain’t happening!) Many unsung heroes and pioneers of the past have played key roles in advancing green-technology for the betterment of the planet at a time that its importance was unforeseen and the embryotic technology was, at times, cumbersome and impractical. Check out some of the most obscure attempts at driving green from a time when it wasn’t trendy to care about the ozone.
20 Detroit Electric
History oscillates through a winding sine wave of phases and events that, as we become older, we begin to recognize. In this modern-day world’s quick transition to cleaner energy, it’s easy to get lost in all the new technology and forget that a lot of it is actually not new at all.
In 1912, this electric, Model-T looking thing was available to those willing to pay the premium for the luxury.
At a sticker price of around $3,200, it was equivalent to around $75,000 in today’s money. That may not sound like much in the days of million-dollar supercars, but the early 1900 economy was just a tad different. Nonetheless, the beautifully maintained classic is alive and well today, 106 years later.
19 Chicken Puckey Hillman
Born in 1908, Harold Bate is recognized as a revolutionary inventor because he pioneered a method of extracting kinetic potential from chicken manure by a complex process that essentially turns compost and sewage into flammable methane gas.
His brew has a caloric value of 22,000btu per liquid pound compared to gasoline’s 19,000btu.
Whatever all that means, a single run of the machine with a 300lb load of chicken puckey can produce a gasoline-equivalent of 50 gallons – and the math worked out to about three cents per gallon. Why aren’t we burning methane in our cars again? Oh yes, that’s right…it’s methane gas!
18 NASA Curiosity
Big deal, it’s just a rover, right? Wrong! Being so far away, they tend to be out of sight, out of mind – but the rover is quite possibly the ultimate car of the known-and-proven universe. Contrary to most other rovers, this Mars rover is huge; the Sojourner rover with the first Pathfinder mission weighed 25lbs on earth – Curiosity is 10 times heavier and measures 10’ long, 9’ wide and 7’ tall. Although it’s not the alternative energy of the past, it’s still rather interesting that the nuclear generator is capable of producing a steady 110watts of power for almost two ‘earth’ years. Can’t you just imagine a nuclear world where you celebrate your birthday twice as often as you fill up for gas?
17 Hydrogen GT
Ok, so maybe nuclear power is a bit much to try to sell you on so soon in human evolution – will you settle for some hydrogen instead? Don’t worry, it’s not like we’re inflating a giant bag of it above your head and try to float you through the sky; just 42 gallons of it in pressurized aluminum-carbon fiber tanks within inches of either side of your GT racecar seat. Air is sucked in via the large duct where the chemical reaction between the hydrogen and oxygen takes place. This creates an imbalance of electrons in the fuel cell creating electrical potential for the high-power electric motors. Water vapor is the sole by-product of the reaction process.
16 Steam Power
According to Jay Leno, “it’s the greatest steam car ever built.” If Jay Leno says something about a car, I’m inclined to listen. This pristine 1925 Doble E-20 was owned by Howard Hughes and capable of speeds over 130mph (in 1925!). Notably, it was the first steam-powered car capable of turn-key operation and didn’t have a transmission; it didn’t need one with 1,000ft/lbs of torque. Steam power is generated differently than internal combustion and as a result, a direct-drive setup is permissible. It’s the super-heated 800° steam that makes the E-20 such a beast. Without the aid of streamlining, the 5,000lb could reach 75mph in 10 seconds and could run for 1,500 miles before the 24-gallon water tank needed to be refilled; it could even run in freezing weather.
15 Mad Dogg Solar Car
Solar hasn’t become as mainstream as we all may have assumed in years past. Instead, Battery-powered electric motors are in vogue at the moment and everyone has at least a hybrid if not a full-blown electric model offering. Some manufacturers even have full-electric lineups.
Back in 1998, the Mad Dogg II team completed construction on the second variant of their all-solar race machine for entry into the World Solar Rally.
No, it’s not a mainstream race, but nobody wants to watch silent, skinny-wheeled solar panels whiz by at 22mph. (I’m not actually sure how fast it is, but it can’t be very impressive with hydrogen-cells and electric batteries rocketing other alternatively-fueled cars north of 200mph.)
14 Enfield 8000
Ok, confession – this is the baddest Enfield you’ll ever see, and it's on par with a Tesla Roadster in terms of acceleration (which is fast!). The original Enfield was an electric vehicle as well, just far more tame. The two-seater was introduced in 1973 by the Enfield Automotive company with roughly 120 units produced. Most of them were used for governmental purposes as the public may not have been too impressed with a whopping 8hp. The 8000 drew power from its lead-acid batteries and had a top speed of around 48mph and a 40-mile range. Not bad for 1973 nasty, right?
13 Wood & Coal
Rather than an actual ‘model’ of an alternate fuel-burning car, this was more of a retrofit kit that was born from the necessity of cost-effective transportation in the wartime-provisioned economy of the mid-20th century. Looking like it came straight from the pages of some steampunk fantasy novel, the non-homogenous tanks and piping along the car added odd character that had its tiny sliver of awesome amidst the aesthetic tragedy. The fuel rationing spurred development into alternative fuels and wood-gas-powered vehicles rose in popularity by the year. The Automobile Club de France even organized a 75-mile, two-day race open to wood gas burners in 1922. the following year, the race was extended to almost 750 miles over a three-week duration.
12 E-Type Zero Jaguar
Dubbed ‘The Most Beautiful Electric Car in the World,’ the Jaguar E-Type Zero is a modification unheard of to date; the E-Type Zero concept, built off an old E-Type platform, is a conversion kit to update the old roadster’s drivetrain to that of a more modern setup – a zero-emission one in fact.
Yes, the British sports car company decided that it would step into 21st century propulsion with 20th century style.
The retrofit kit is available to current owners of gasoline E-Types and perhaps more interesting – they plan to re-produce the legendary E-Type with the retrofit kit factory installed. Yes, you’re going to see ‘60s era Jaguars sporting modern, all-electric drivetrains soon enough. I guess when you’re Jaguar you already know your clientele will have nothing to do with anything remotely resembling a Prius – well played Jaguar.
11 GM EV-1
Perhaps just a moment before its shining moment of glory, the EV-1 never lived to see what fortune and fame awaited the new generation of eco-friendly drivers. The EV-1 was the first modern-era, mass-produced, production electric car from a major automaker. This little dud caused so much positive hype prior to its release that the California Clean Air Resource Board subsequently mandated each of the major automakers to manufacture and sell a zero-emissions vehicle to even market their cars in California. Despite the positive reception for the ugly little car, GM decided to crush most of them in the belief that the electric segment of the car market was an unprofitable one better left untouched.
10 KAZ Eliica
It’s ugly as all heck and the bulbous body lines carving out the cabin’s boundaries look like a B-grade ‘80s sci-fi movie prop. The tandem sets of axles at each end do add a cool-factor element (not to mention twice the grip) but the likability factor is still up in the air. Maybe the tipping point is actually what it can do – the Eliica (Electric Lithium-Ion Car) was built by a Keio University tech team in Tokyo. It was faster to 60mph than the 911 Turbo of the day (four seconds) and was even clocked at 230mph on a high-speed circuit in Italy. 230mph has got to be worth something in your book, right?
9 Tata Air Pod
If you thought the Smart Car was as tight as engineers could pack two people into a composite-plastic sardine can, you underestimate the power of math. The design looks as simple as taking a 3-D rendering of a computer mouse and stretching it on its z-axis until it was tall enough to fit a person.
The strangest part however, is what propels it.
It runs on compressed air but has auxiliary electric pumps to generate air pressure which run off batteries which are recharged by electricity which, without the ability to regenerate on its own, must charge at a static station likely powered by electricity generated from coal energy. So, in a way, it’s a coal-powered, compressed air-driven car. That’s a real hybrid if you think about it.
8 Loremo AG
One does not simply walk into a world of 100mpg passenger sedans gliding effortlessly along an uncongested motorway. And while we may not ever see uncongested motorways ever again, we are pushing fuel economy boundaries further than ever before with staggering numbers penetrating the triple digit threshold.
Debuted at the Frankfurt Auto Show, the Loremo AG aimed at delivering over 100mpg in their (dare I say) innovative designs.
By innovative, I mean scary and cramped beyond an acceptable level for the land of the legendary Tri-Fives. But if climbing into a clamshell fuselage and sitting inches above the pavement is your idea of green living, this may have been the whip for you. Loremo was founded in 2000 and promised production cars by 2009 but a decade later the project is still inactive.
7 GM Electrovan
As anti-environment as the late ‘60s may have seemed from an air pollution standpoint, and despite the lack of public attention toward the matter, there was actually a lot of activity on the alternatively-fueled production vehicle front. GM was at the time developing what would have been the perfect, modern-day millennial Scooby Doo van. GM recognized the future value and ultimate need for more sustainable energy and wasted no time in creating multiple test beds from which to fiddle with fuel cells and renewable energy-powered vehicles. The Electrovan is the world’s first known example of fuel cell technology integrated into a motor vehicle.
6 Future Cycle
Any company that has to vehemently assert that it is a component of the future by working subtle cues into the company name such as The Future People can almost be assured not to last very long. Still though, fads can be fun and we’ll have our amusement with them before we lay them to rest in the embarrassing history book of things that used to be cool. This trendy fad here is a Future People design aimed at bridging the gap between walking and driving in abstract ways that shift the focus of renewable energy into an entire different arena and if you don’t mind pedaling around an industrial air conditioner-sized bike that’s as aerodynamic as a barn, it could be a little bit of fun until you run into your first hill with a headwind.
5 Henry’s Hemp Car
Now that we got the alternate fuel car for the active lifestyle out of the way, it’s only fair to include also a car that is geared towards a more sedentary side of life: the hemp car. A brief look at history will surprise you with just how innovative breakthroughs were.
It is clear in hindsight that we’ve been on the cusp of this energy-shift for many decades.
Henry’s hemp car was not only powered by hemp oil, it was constructed of composite panels molded under 1,500lbs of hydraulic pressure that were extremely tough, lightweight, and groundbreaking in their own right. It was the fruition of over a decade of research and development into such highly advanced technologies that it’s almost ironic that this was all happening in tandem with the development of the car itself.
4 Chrysler Turbine Car
Ok, so maybe not as green as the rest of them - a jet fuel burning turbine doesn’t exactly yell eco-friendly from the rooftops - but being an alternate fuel to gasoline (and just one-off cool like you’ve never seen), it had to make the list. The turbine car program dates back to the ‘30s although the technology didn’t catch up for 20 years. By the late-‘50s, running prototypes had already completed long distance trips and the A-831 turbines were showing great potential. They required less maintenance than the piston-pounding gasoline engines and could operate on many different fuels. The only problem was the production cost of the powerplants themselves as they were extremely expensive.
3 Firebird Before the Firebird
Long before Smokey and the Bandit made the Pontiac Firebird a big-screen legend, there was a different type of Firebird that actually breathed fire and had the sole duty of showcasing GM engineering prowess outside of the piston-pounding arena. Not out of character for the automaker, GM was known to have technology parades and aggressive marketing campaigns to show the public just what they could do. The four turbines were to be released in staggering succession to coincide their release with four different Motorama auto shows. The car never took off, but it was a push in a less-conventional direction at a time when this type of machine was as futuristic as a UFO.
2 GM Sunraycer
Designed after the most nuclear-resistant insect on the planet, the GM Sunraycer mimics the profile of an airfoil with a tall and rounded leading edge blending into narrow and sharp trailing-edge sections.
No room for turn signals, taillights or even any rear facing windows, the Sunraycer is clad with solar panels from the cockpit aft.
Although maybe not a strong argument for the viability of solar energy used in motorcars, this 20’ long by 3’ tall road-roach was able to travel up to 60mph in ideal conditions. 7,200 solar cells covering 90sq/ft of skin on the aft body sections suck in the natural power of the sun; should clouds obstruct daylight there is an onboard battery to supplement power.
1 Sebring-Vangard CitiCar
A brief three-year production run in the mid-‘70s pumped out something so unique you’d not have believed even with your own eyes, but the Florida-based company actually produced quite a healthy number of them. A total of 4,444 units were produced in all – the highest number of a domestic-assembled electric car since 1945 until the Tesla Model S came along. Why have you never seen one you ask? Well, just look at the thing! Maybe this was a rager back in the ‘70s, but nobody was sober back then anyway and when people finally came to their senses and realized it made a better spider web habitat than a commuter, they were eventually all parked.
Sources: motherearthnews.com, technologyreview.com, bbc.com, carnewscafe.com, motortrend.com, motor1.com.