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Victor Wouk, 86; Developed Hybrid Car in '70s

June 19, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Victor Wouk, an electrical engineer and entrepreneur who funded and developed the first full-size version of the modern hybrid car in the 1970s and continued to be an advocate for the development of automobiles powered by both electricity and gasoline, has died. He was 86.

Wouk, brother of novelist Herman Wouk, died of cancer May 19 at his home in New York City, said his son Jordan.

Wouk, who has been described as "the father of modern hybrid programs," held more than 10 patents, most of them related to hybrid and electric vehicles.

He was head of electronic research for Gulton Industries when he began consulting on the development of a full-size electric car in the late 1960s. But Wouk soon realized that such vehicles would never be commercially viable until a strong-enough battery was developed to solve speed and acceleration problems.

He came to believe that a hybrid was the interim answer.

In a 2004 interview for an oral history project at Caltech, his alma mater, Wouk recalled trying to generate interest in hybrids at a time when emission limits were being placed on vehicles and the idea of electric cars was under consideration.

"Until we multiply the battery capacity by at least a factor of three, and preferably eight, [electric cars will] be no competition for conventional cars," he would tell people. And, he recalled, "I would be told, 'Oh, you don't have any faith. It's got to be all-electric.'

"I was actually being accused of being anti-electric car. I'd say, 'It's not that I don't want electric cars. I want cars that will work!' And they would say, 'If it's a hybrid, you've still got an internal combustion engine; you're going to have some emissions. We don't like the idea.' "

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which required the development of an automobile engine within six years that would eliminate 90% of the pollutants then being emitted by engines.

Wouk left Gulton and formed Petro-Electric Motors to develop a hybrid vehicle for the new Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, which was run by the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage innovative designs.

He and his partner, Charles Rosen, who had been running the electric-vehicle program at Gulton and shared Wouk's enthusiasm for hybrids, signed a contract with the EPA in 1971.

They were convinced that they could build a hybrid vehicle that would meet -- and even exceed -- the standards of the Clean Air Act. The two men shared in the development of the car, on which Wouk and friends invested about $300,000.

"I took care of the building of it and the engine; he took care of the electronics," Rosen, who built the car in his Teaneck, N.J., garage said Thursday in an interview with The Times.

Their demonstration vehicle -- a modified 1972 Buick Skylark -- featured a Wankel rotary engine from Mazda and an electric motor that supplied peak power when it was needed.

"We built the first full-powered, full-sized hybrid vehicle," Rosen said. "Nobody had taken a full-sized passenger car and made a hybrid out of it."

The car proved effective in independent lab tests: It met the strictest emission standards, got 30 miles to a gallon of gas and had a top speed of 85 mph.

The incentive for paying for the research and development of their car, Wouk said in his 2004 interview, was that if it passed successive tests, the government would order several hundred for official use across the country at twice the price it would normally pay for an automobile.

Theirs was the only hybrid in the government program, and, by early 1974, it was the sole surviving vehicle out of seven being considered.

But after undergoing the final EPA tests -- and their car performed well within the acceptable range of most of the tests, Wouk said -- he and Rosen were told that it did not meet the specifications.

In his interview, Wouk blamed a biased, unnamed EPA official for wanting to drop the program and for telling the testing engineers, "Under no circumstances is the hybrid to be accepted."

Rosen said Thursday that he didn't believe "in the conspiracy theory." But, he said, "after meeting all the standards, we just got a thank you" from the EPA.

When they tried to gather commercial support for their hybrid, he added, "we got great enthusiasm for the concept from many venture capitalists. But, when push came to shove, we couldn't get anyone to support it."

After Petro-Electric folded in the 1970s, Wouk became a consultant focusing on, among other things, hybrid vehicles. Through the years, he remained a high-profile booster.

In 1997 -- two decades after he and Rosen built their hybrid -- Toyota introduced its gasoline-electric hybrid car, Prius, in Japan. Wouk leased one as soon as the 2001 model became available in the U.S.

"The Toyota Prius reflects a lot of his input," Jordan Wouk said. "That was his 30-year quest, and he was vindicated."

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