Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Discover the story of the world’s first hybrid car as we explore the remarkable history of Lohner – a Vienna-based company which over two centuries has developed cars, aircraft, trams and scooters. Duncan JD Smith delves into the archives to chart the history of this Austrian legend.

article summary —

Few people outside Austria will recognise the name Lohner. Those for whom the name does ring a bell are probably diehard transport aficionados. Lohner was a Vienna-based vehicle company. Long ago it was absorbed into other entities, with new brands such as Tesla now hogging the automotive limelight. Lohner, however, should not be forgotten. The company lays claim to an extraordinary history spanning five generations, encompassing everything from scooters to seaplanes and the world’s first hybrid car. With 2021 marking two centuries since the company started, it is a timely opportunity to celebrate this unsung transport legend.

Carriages by appointment

The Lohner story starts with a German, one Heinrich Lohner. Hailing from a family of waggoners in Mayen in the Rhineland, he avoided conscription into the French army in 1811 by moving to Vienna. There he acquired citizenship and in 1821 set up as a cartwright in the Starhembergsche Freihaus, a housing-cum-industrial complex in the 4th District of Wieden (the site is today occupied by the city’s Technical University).

In 1826, Heinrich Lohner began a loose collaboration with Istrian master saddler and carriage builder Ludwig Laurenzi. This enabled him to move in 1832 to larger premises in the nearby Heumühlgasse. Still standing, this building retains its glassed-over courtyard, which once rang to the sound of Heinrich’s six nephews, all employed as journeymen to help market his skills.

The story fast forwards now to the early 1840s. Heinrich’s son Jacob, also a trained saddler and now in his early 20s, hiked through Europe to hone his own talents. After taking in most countries between the Czech Republic and England, he returned in 1843 and at his father’s behest took a position with Laurenzi. Together the three men began garnering awards and by 1851 they had manufactured some 1,400 horse-drawn vehicles. These included luxury carriages for the Austrian aristocracy, as well as more practical mail coaches and telegraph wagons for the Austrian army.

With the death of Heinrich in 1855, and Laurenzi four years later, Jacob took over the entire business through marriage to Laurenzi’s daughter Aloisia.

Intent on increasing business, he sought out royal patronage and in 1860 visited Scandinavia, where he was appointed official supplier to the Swedish Court. Thereafter, the royal courts of Norway and Romania followed suit. With orders increasing, the company moved to a full-blown factory at what is now Servitengasse 19 in Vienna’s Alsergrund district. Ideally located in the days before the area was given over to housing, the factory included workshops for blacksmiths, upholsters and varnishers, as well as a foundry and a steam-powered sawmill. From 1861, the company traded here as Jacob Lohner & Co., and in 1863 alone manufactured 429 carriages. By the time of the 1873 Vienna World Fair, ten thousand vehicles had been built, including not only elegant landaus for the well-heeled but also haulage wagons and ambulances.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 65.