Some parts of armored vehicle history are more mysterious than others. This is especially true for the general history of early armored cars. Although some vehicles have left behind a decent trace of photographs and documentation, others are hidden in the darkness of time, ashamed of their commercial failure. One of those armored vehicles is the Automitrailleuse Blindée Auto Mixte. As the first armored car ever made in Belgium and likely the very first armored vehicle ever featuring a hybrid propulsion system, this vehicle does not deserve to be hidden away.
The firm Auto Mixte
The Belgian firm Auto Mixte (Eng: Mixed Car) based its production on the legacy of German-born engineer Henri Pieper (1840-1898). In 1859, he moved to Liège, where he opened a workshop aimed at mechanics and armaments manufacturing. Producing a variety of weapons, the firm started with the production of wheeled vehicles in 1897. Together with his sons, Nicolas and Henri Jr., he started the development of a hybrid propulsion system. After his death in 1898, development continued and the first hybrid design was presented in 1899. The design featured a gasoline engine and a generator that both functioned as a dynamo and electric engine. The generator was coupled to accumulators. During start-up, the petrol engine was started by the generator acting as an electric engine powered by the accumulators. While driving on flat ground, the vehicle would be powered by the petrol engine only, but when driving up slopes, the generator could be run in reverse, powered by the batteries, acting as a secondary engine to drive the vehicle. When driving down slopes, the generator would act as the dynamo, charging the accumulators. Although having benefits, the use of two engines and accumulators was expensive and made the vehicle heavier than its single-engine counterparts. Besides this hybrid design, cheaper, single-engine vehicles were built by Pieper too, until production ceased in 1903.
Auto Mixte was founded in 1905 by the engineer Théo Pescatore (1871-1931) who started building hybrid cars after the Pieper design. Auto Mixte was the name used by Pieper to describe the hybrid design in his related patents, hence the company was named like this. The company had numerous shareholders, including Henri Tudor (1859-1928), an inventor of accumulators. In 1906, Auto Mixte settled in Herstal, near Liège. The company soon started specializing in the production of heavy-duty vehicles like trucks, fire-fighting vehicles, and buses. In 1910, the firm supplied four vehicles to the Belgian Army which were specially designed to provide electricity to power wireless telegraphy stations. They were operated by the Special Telegraphy Company of the Antwerp Engineers Regiment. Caused by a disappointingly low number of sales during later years, several shareholders decided to withdraw in 1912, causing the end of the firm. Théo Pascatore unsuccessfully tried to resume production under his own name but had to give up in 1913, after which the factory was sold to Gillet-Herstal, a motorcycle manufacturer.
With the construction of an armored car, Auto Mixte possibly tried to secure more orders from the Belgian Army, fighting the company’s commercial decline, but without success. Unfortunately, it is unknown if the Army ever trialed the vehicle or considered it for purchase.
Given similar armored cars developed around the same time in other countries, the vehicle was likely based on an already available truck chassis that in the case of Auto Mixte would have featured the hybrid design, making this vehicle one of the first, if very likely not the first, hybrid armored vehicle.
The car featured a regular white-on-black Belgian number plate with number 12611. Cars registered in the area of Liège, including Herstal, were numbered 11700 to 12799. Compared to contemporary foreign number plates, the Belgian design was large, measuring 54 by 20 cm. Made from enamel, these registration plates weighed nearly 2 kg apiece and can be used to help estimate the dimensions of the vehicle with the help of available photographs, as no official dimensions are available. It can be determined that the vehicle was roughly 5 m long, had a width of 1.5 m and a height of 1.6 m without, and 2.2 m with lamp. The armor thickness of the vehicle is unknown, but if basic protection against infantry arms fire was to be achieved, the thickness would have been around 4-6 mm, like on many other armored vehicles of the period.
A large signal lamp was located in the back of the vehicle. It seems to be a type that would normally be seen on ships and used to communicate with other ships or possibly coastal emplacements. Maybe Auto Mixte envisioned that the vehicle would perform reconnaissance missions and could signal vital information, or to communicate with other armored cars during combined operations.
Based on the photographs, it can be determined that the vehicle carried at least two machine guns of experimental make, designed by Berthier and produced by the Belgian arms manufacturer Anciens Establissements Pieper. The selection of these machine guns shows the relationship between Pieper and Auto-Mixte, as the latter used the former’s patents. Apart from a wooden grip, the weapon was made of metal and without any screws and was easy to disassemble without tools. The weapon weighed 7 kg and was chambered to fire 7 mm ‘Mauser espagnol’ (‘Spanish’ Mauser) rounds. A switch allowed for single, or burst firing mode. French testing of the weapon by the Experimenting Commission of Versailles showed the weapon was accurate but the water cooling system was prone to malfunctions. The flexible tube that can be seen dangling from the end of the weapon was part of this cooling system. The gun sparked an interest with the commission and Berthier was asked to present a new and improved model rechambered to the regular French 8 mm 1886-D bullet.
Like many other early armored vehicles, the Auto Mixte has long been forgotten, up to a point that only a few people are aware of its existence. The open-topped design was basic and would unintendedly be replicated quite a few times during the First World War. The war was only raging for a short time when the Belgians started to make use of several improvised armored cars, followed by a standardized design built by the Minerva factory. In 1915, a special Belgian armored car unit would be deployed on the Eastern Front, making the Belgian Army one of the most profound users of armored vehicles during this Great War.
Auto Mixte (Herstal-Liège) 1905-1912, automania.be
Belgique Les Plaques D’immatriculation l’âge d’émail (1900-1953), Alain Dupont. PDF.
Gazette des Armes no.84, Le F.M. Berthier 1908-1922 1er Partie, 1980.
Henri Pieper biography, littlegun.be
Les voitures hybrides dans l’histoire, December 20, 2005, automania.be
|5 x 1.5 x 1.6 m (2.2 m with lamp)
|4~6 (Driver, lamp operator, two machine gunners, assistants)
|2 x 7 mm Berthier Model 1910 machine guns
|Approx. between 3-6 mm