Victor Wouk and The Great Hybrid Car Cover-up of 1974

Thirty years before the Toyota Prius got the attention of an energy-anxious nation, a starry-eyed inventor named Victor Wouk built a hybrid gas-electric vehicle that sipped fuel at half the rate of virtually all other cars on the road.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested Wouk’s vehicle, certified that it met the strict guidelines for an EPA clean-air auto program—and rejected it out of hand.

The story about the vehicle and its inventor, who died in May, 2005, at age 86, is unknown among even the most diehard fans of today’s burgeoning hybrid car movement. One might conclude that in fact America was ahead of all other countries in hybrid car science—three decades ahead—but squashed it under the weight of the federal bureaucracy.

“The government program I was on to develop hybrids was more secret than Los Alamos and the atom bomb. There was a program, but nobody knows anything about it now,” Wouk said in an interview one year before his passing.

The story of the 1974 prototype hybrid car pits Wouk against an EPA bureaucrat, Eric Stork, head of EPA’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Control Program from 1970 until 1978. Stork was highly skeptical that any inventor or backyard tinkerer could produce a feasible low-emission vehicle. Stork recently stated, “It never happened.”

What certainly did happen is that the EPA in 1974 ran an obscure research program called the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. Wouk, whose enthusiasm for gas-electric hybrids bordered on fanaticism, shared the passion of many amateur auto inventors of the 1960s and 1970s who sought to create an everyday car that belched far fewer toxic fumes than contemporary vehicles.

Wouk’s design, which he built with his partner, Charlie Rosen, easily could be lost to history. But since more than 200,000 hybrid gas-electric vehicles will be bought in the United States this year, the story of Wouk’s invention is required reading for anyone interested in our quest to wring more performance out of gallon of gasoline. And with the national average price of gas hovering around $2.60 a gallon, who isn’t?

The Answer is Hybrid

Victor Wouk could hardly be labeled a backyard tinkerer. After receiving his doctorate, magna cum laude, in electric engineering from the California Institute of Technology, he worked for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, where he developed high-voltage controls for centrifuges used to purify uranium for the Manhattan Project. Victor’s brother, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Herman Wouk, reportedly based the War and Remembrance character of Palmer Kirby, a CalTech alum and atom bomb developer, on Victor.

In the late 1940s and 50s, Wouk founded and sold two successful electric manufacturing/supply companies. In 1962, he was approached by one of the founders of Motorola, Russell Feldman, who recognized automobile pollution as a problem and wanted to explore the market possibilities for electric cars. Wouk drove Feldman’s test electric vehicles, took measurements, and reported back that the batteries didn’t have the energy required to produce either enough speed or range. Electric cars, Wouk told Feldman, were not commercially viable.

Throughout the 60s, Wouk pondered the problem and subsequently reached an ingenious solution: combine the low-emissions benefits of an electric car with the power of a gasoline engine to produce a hybrid vehicle. Wouk received little or no response to his ideas for a hybrid gas-electric car. In fact, he was often criticized for not having faith in a full-electric system, which promised to produce no emissions. A hybrid vehicle, which utilizes gasoline as well as electricity, can greatly reduce but not completely eliminate tailpipe emissions.

The Chance to Prove His Ideas

Wouk’s colleague, chemical researcher Charlie Rosen, shared his belief in hybrid cars, and told him about a new EPA program, the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. Wouk contacted several people he knew at the EPA, who encouraged him to propose his hybrid car ideas.

Wouk and Rosen formed a new company specifically to develop their hybrid car idea and submit a proposal to the FCCIP. Herman Wouk came up with the name of the new company, Petro-Electric Motors, Ltd. The race was on to create a hybrid car blueprint.

As Wouk and Rosen launched their company, the political climate was building more and more impetus for low-emissions vehicles. The Clean Air Act, requiring automakers to reduce hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions by 90 percent, was passed on New Year’s Eve, 1970. Section 212 of the act granted $25 million per year for the purchase of these low-polluting vehicles, if they were safe and reliable. Stork said, “I had one engineer who handled Section 212 for me. It wasn’t worth my time. It was just a nuisance. I was busy regulating the auto industry. I didn’t have time for that Christmas tree ornament.”

What Stork saw as a futile and wasteful government program, Wouk saw as the chance for massive support for his great hybrid car dream.

Preparing the Proposal

The Federal Clean Car Incentive Program did not contribute seed money to Wouk and the other applicants. They would have to earn it by submitting a plan for a vehicle that could meet the standards proposed in the Clean Air Act. Inventors who submitted a proposal that was approved would receive a contract for $30,000. But the money didn’t motivate Dr. Wouk. He said, “My real incentive was mainly to prove the damn thing worked.”

Wouk and Rosen worked feverishly on their project for a year. They tweaked the proposal until the night before the deadline, made the required copies (despite a creaky copy machine), and flew to Washington, D.C., to deliver the proposal. Three agonizing months later, they got the call: Petro-Electric Motors Ltd. got the $30,000 contract. Seven other applications got the thumbs-up from FCCIP, including proposals for an electric car, a diesel engine, and a vehicle using a simple exhaust filter. Wouk’s application was the only hybrid.

Building the Prototype

The inventors went shopping for a car to use as the frame for their prototype. “I went to various showrooms in New York. I looked under the hoods. The Buick Skylark seemed to have the most volume. And not knowing exactly how much space we were going to need, I wanted a car with the largest volume under the hood.”

As Wouk and Rosen conducted a series of their own emission tests, they learned that—one by one—all the other applicants failed to produce the desired results, and dropped out of the FCCIP project. On the other hand, Petro-Electric Motors’ hybrid Buick Skylark was still humming along.

Wouk notified the EPA that they were ready for a final test. To Wouk’s surprise, Erik Stork refused to test the hybrid and threatened to drop the entire program. He saw himself as a regulator extraordinaire. Referring to Detroit automakers, Stork said, “I was their regulator. It was marvelous. It was a pissing contest at least every day, maybe two or three. Really makes the adrenaline flow and the rheumatism go away. You may be up to your ass in alligators. You’re never going to drain the swamp, but once in a while, you nick an alligator, you think you’re doing something. It was wonderful.”

Wouk petitioned for help from the National Science Foundation, which called a meeting of a special committee, which included Wouk, Stork, other EPA officials, and Herman Wouk, one of the project’s sponsors. Victor gave a presentation to explain their progress with the hybrid. The committee pleaded with Stork to let the project proceed.

Stork finally agreed, promising to move ahead if the hybrid passed the test. From Stork’s point of view, that was a big if.

As the testing date approached, one of the EPA engineers shared in confidence with Wouk that Stork told the EPA staff that the hybrid would not be accepted under any circumstances. Wouk asked why. Wouk, in a 2004 interview, said he was told that Stork said, “If you think you’re so smart, build the car and build lots of them and we’ll buy them. Don’t have us test them.”

Wouk insisted that the FCCIP program was under contract, and obligated to test the hybrid. The team tuned up the Skylark, quickly adjusted for unexpected electricity spikes in the motor, and modified the fuel mixture. At last, the EPA tested the hybrid—and it passed.

A month later, the EPA sent a report citing 75 reasons why the hybrid would not go into the next phase of support. Volumes of correspondence exchanged between Wouk and the EPA, going into great detail about whether or not the Skylark really passed the test. In one letter, Stork went beyond his previous explanation, stating his fundamental disagreement with the hybrid design. He agreed that the hybrid cut emissions and saved fuel, but objected to the use of two sources of power. According to Wouk, Stork reportedly told him that he just didn’t believe in hybrids.

Today, Stork, now retired from the EPA at age 78, recalled, “On the dynamometer, it was rigged to run only on the batteries. That’s why the emissions were so good. It’s just not a very practical technology for automotive. That’s why it’s going nowhere. It certainly wasn’t [going anywhere] then. Even today, it’s marginal.” Charlie Rosen, Wouk’s partner, also retired, said he does not have a clear memory of Stork and his role in the rejection of their hybrid.

Giving Up on the EPA

After two years of trying to get the EPA to overturn their rejection—or to get the automotive industry to pay attention to their hybrid’s impressive capabilities – Petro–Electric Motors ran out of money. Rosen recalled, “With a family to support, I had to move on. But Victor thought the hybrid car was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He wasn’t going to let it go.”

Rosen remembers that GM and other auto companies were more encouraging and helpful than the EPA, but the interest in taking any action was very low. Rosen attributes the lack of interest to the low cost of gasoline after the initial shock of the Arab oil embargo wore off. “It’s a marketing problem. Gas was 28 cents per gallon. I felt that nobody would really give us or hybrid cars a chance, until gas reached the $1 mark.

Wouk said, “By 1976, I was so disgusted. I lost so much energy, that I gave up, and I went into straight consulting.”

The 25 Year Hybrid Crusade

While Wouk gave up his fight against Stork and the EPA, his belief in hybrid technology continued to burn. From 1974 – 2000, Wouk published more than 100 technical papers, gave regular lectures, and wrote numerous letters to the editor. He championed the benefits and feasibility of mass commercialization of hybrid cars, especially plug-in hybrids, and criticized Detroit’s foolish pursuit of magic solutions for reducing emissions and increasing fuel efficiency. By contrast, he saw hybrids as real, practical, effective, and immediately available.

In 1979, he wrote in the New York Times, “Tests on, and studies of, hybrids have shown that petroleum usage of 80 miles per gallon will be possible for normal daily driving, and 50 miles per gallon when averaged over a year…We should start a crash program to commercialize the hybrid. It would make sense because all aspects of the hybrid have been proved workable. No new technologies need be developed.”

Vindicated At Last

In 2004, one year before his death, Dr. Victor Wouk recorded an oral history interview with the CalTech Archives. Interviewer Judith Goodstein asked Wouk what might have happened if EPA officials running the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program had been less committed to an anti-hybrid view. She inquired, “Do you think it would have meant a different outcome for this country and the evolution of hybrids cars?” Wouk replied, “That is what I had been espousing for almost 30 years. If we must reduce automobile pollution and reduce automobile fuel consumption a large amount in a short period of time. The only thing you should do is use existing technologies, and as these technologies improve, you just go ahead. But nobody did anything about it until, independently, the Japanese—Toyota and Honda.”

Well into his 80s, Wouk purchased a white Toyota Prius and proudly drove it through Manhattan. Eric Stork sees no irony. He said, “The hybrid vehicles that we see now are really very different technology.”

Today, over 300,000 hybrids are running on American roads. 95 percent of them are Japanese. Detroit’s Big Three auto companies continue to produce large SUVs and trucks, and invest billions of dollars in hydrogen vehicles, which most experts predict are between 10 and 20 years away from commercial viability.

The total cumulative health cost of auto-pollution-related illnesses since 1980—when Wouk’s hybrid design could have realistically been put into production—can be measured in the billions.

Dr. Victor Wouk, who never smoked cigarettes, contracted lymphoma and died of lung cancer in New York City on May 19, 2005.