The Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car will be showcased at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, but it won't be the first hydrogen-powered vehicle to play a role in an Olympics.

The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow are often remembered for the U.S.-led boycott, but they also featured a curious automotive-historical footnote.

It turns out that Soviet authorities released a handful of minibuses converted to run on both hydrogen and gasoline for support duties at the games.

DON'T MISS: Toyota Mirai Fuel-Cell Car To Get Global Showcase At 2020 Olympics

They were the result of a project begun in 1976, using the RAF 2203 van as the basis for the fuel-cell vehicles, according to a Russian-language LiveJournal post on the project.

This model was manufactured by the Riga Autobus Factory of Latvia, one of the main producers of vans and minibuses in the state-orchestrated Soviet car industry.

The RAF 2203 featured an engine mounted between the front seats--not unlike the American Dodge A100 van of the previous decade.

For the research project, the existing engine was modified to run on both gasoline and hydrogen.

That differs from the modern hydrogen cars envisioned by Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda, which use fuel cells and electric propulsion.

At low speeds, the engine would run on hydrogen only, then switch to a mix of hydrogen and gasoline at moderate speeds.

RELATED: BMW: We've Been Making Electric Cars Since The 1972 Olympics (Mar 2012)

Under "maximum load," the hydrogen supply would be cut off, and the engine would run on gasoline only.

The first test vehicle reportedly achieved a roughly 28 percent improvement in fuel economy over a comparable model running only on gasoline.

Several of the buses were subsequently used at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and were used for other alternative-fuels experiments after that.

1976 Soviet hydrogen-gasoline minibus prototype (photo courtesy of LiveJournal user doroshenko_us)

1976 Soviet hydrogen-gasoline minibus prototype (photo courtesy of LiveJournal user doroshenko_us)

Another prototype minibus with a hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain was also shown at the 1982 Moscow International Exhibition.

These Soviet-era hydrogen minibuses are just another example of how the Olympics can be an important forum for showcasing green automotive technology.

BMW used the 1972 Munich Olympics to introduce its first electric car prototype, and brought a fleet of plug-in cars to the 2012 London Games.

MORE: Vancouver Olympics Get Green Transport: Electric Streetcars (Feb 2010)

Also featured in London were a fleet of hydrogen-powered taxis, although lack of nearby fueling stations ultimately negated their green benefits.

Now, hydrogen is poised to get its biggest exposure yet thanks to Toyota, which is now a global Olympic sponsor.

So as you watch the inevitable deluge of Mirai ads over the next few years, perhaps spare a thought for these Cold War relics.


[hat tip: Hugh Crawford]

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