Steam locomotives or steam engines capable of propelling themselves along either road or rails, developed around one hundred years earlier than internal combustion engine automobiles, although their weight restricted them to agricultural and heavy haulage work on roads. The light steam car developed simultaneously with cars powered by internal combustion engines, as both engineering and road building matured. As the steam car could use the vast experience of steam engines already developed with steam locomotives, it initially had the advantage. In 1900 the steam car was broadly superior and even held absolute land speed records. By 1920 the internal combustion engine had progressed to a degree of refinement that made the steam car obsolete.
Not many steam cars have been built since the 1920s, although the technology is practical, and projects intermittently occur to create a contemporary steam car with contemporary levels of convenience, performance and efficiency.
The greatest technical challenges to the steam car have focused on its boiler. This represents much of the total mass of the vehicle, making the car heavy (an internal combustion-engined car requires no boiler), and requires careful attention from the driver, although even the cars of 1900 had considerable automation to manage this. The single largest restriction is the need to supply feedwater to the boiler. This must either be carried and frequently replenished, or the car must also be fitted with a condenser, a further weight and inconvenience.
The steam car does have advantages over internal combustion-powered cars, although most of these are now less important than in the early 20th century. The engine (excluding the boiler) is smaller and lighter than an internal combustion engine. It is also better suited to the speed and torque characteristics of the axle, thus avoiding the need for the heavy and complex transmission required for an internal combustion engine. The car is also quieter, even without a silencer.
- 1 Technology
- 2 Early steam cars
- 3 Early 20th century
- 4 1950s prototype
- 5 Mid-20th century to the present steam cars
- 6 In popular culture
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 External links
A steam engine is an external combustion engine (ECE: the fuel is combusted away from the engine), as opposed to an internal combustion engine (ICE: the fuel is combusted within the engine). While gasoline-powered ICE cars have an operational thermal efficiency of 15% to 30%, early automotive steam units were capable of only about half this efficiency. A significant benefit of the ECE is that the fuel burner can be configured for very low emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and unburned carbon in the exhaust, thus avoiding pollution.
Steam-powered and electric cars outsold gasoline-powered ones in many US states prior to the invention of the electric starter, since internal combustion cars relied on a hand crank to start the engine, which was difficult and occasionally dangerous to use, as improper cranking could cause a backfire capable of breaking the arm of the operator. Electric cars were popular to some extent, but had a short range, and could not be charged on the road if the batteries ran low.
Early steam cars, once working pressure was attained, could be instantly driven off with high acceleration; but they typically take several minutes to start from cold, plus time to get the burner to operating temperature. To overcome this, development has been directed toward flash boilers, which heat a much smaller quantity of water to get the vehicle started, and, in the case of Doble cars, spark ignition diesel burners.
The steamer has other drawbacks, also. The absence of a gearbox is more than counterbalanced by the weight of cooling and forced draft fans, fans, and boiler feed, fuel feed, and air pumps; the battery and fan to feed even a flash boiler will more than overcome the weight of a gearbox, and need to run even at idle.
Furthermore, the radiator must be larger, since all heat engines depend on the temperature differences in the working fluid; in steam cars, this heat exchange must be larger and more rapid, and so, too, must the radiator.
Early steam cars
Although the first applications of steam to propelling a road vehicle were attempted in the 17th century, it was not until the advent of high pressure steam engines, in the early 19th century, that such vehicles became practical. Limitations in manufacturing technology and the poor condition of road surfaces meant that no steam car suitable for personal transportation, was created until the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless the story that a pair of Yorkshiremen, engineer Robert Fourness and his cousin, physician James Ashworth had a steam carriage running in 1788, after being granted a British Patent, No.1674 of December 1788, crops up. An illustration of it even appeared in Hergé's book Tintin raconte l'Histoire de l'Automobile (Casterman, 1953).
From 1873 to 1883 Amédée Bollée of Le Mans built a series of steam-powered passenger vehicles able to carry 6 to 12 people at speeds up to 60 km/h (37 mph), with such names as Rapide and L'Obéissante. In Bollée's vehicles the boiler was mounted behind the passenger compartment with the engine at the front of the vehicle, driving the differential through a shaft with chain drive to the rear wheels. The driver sat behind the engine and steered by means of a wheel mounted on a vertical shaft. The layout more closely resembled later motor cars than other steam vehicles.
De Dion & Bouton steam vehicles
The development by Serpollet of the flash boiler brought about the appearance of various diminutive steam tricycles and quadricycles during the late 1880s and early 1890s, notably by de Dion & Bouton. These successfully competed in long distance races, but soon met with stiff competition for public favour from the internal combustion engine cars being developed, notably by Peugeot, that quickly cornered most of the popular market. With the increasing popularity of internal combustion engine cars, proponents of the steam car had to fight a long rear-guard battle that was to last into modern times.
Early 20th century
Steam cars outnumbered other forms of propulsion among very early cars. In the U.S. in 1902, 485 of 909 new car registrations were steamers. From 1899 Mobile had ten branches and 58 dealers across the U.S. The center of U.S. steamer production was New England, where 38 of the 84 manufacturers were located. Examples include White (Cleveland), Eclipse (Easton, Massachusetts), Cotta (Lanark, Illinois), Crouch (New Brighton, Pennsylvania), Hood (Danvers, Massachusetts; lasted just one month), Kidder (New Haven, Connecticut), Century (Syracuse, New York), and Skene (Lewiston, Maine; the company built everything but the tires). By 1903, 43 of them were gone. In 1923, Brooks (Canadian) opened for business, lasting until 1926.
Toledo Steam Carriage
In 1900 the American Bicycle Co. of Toledo, Ohio created a 6.25 hp Toledo Steam Carriage (a description from the Horseless Age, December 1900). The Toledo Steam Carriage was a very well-made, high-quality machine and is considered one of the best steam cars produced at the time. The engine was particularly robust and the 2x3" diameter x 4"stoke pistons employed piston style valves instead of 'D' valves thus insuring better balance and reduced leakage of steam. In September 1901 two Toledo steamers, one model B (a model A machine 1,000 to 2,000 pounds or 454 to 907 kilograms but with the foul-weather gear designating it as a model B) and one class E (public delivery vehicle), were entered by the American Bicycle Co. into the New York to Buffalo Endurance Contest of mid-September 1901. There were 36 cars in class B and three in class E; the class B Toledo won the Grosse Point race. These carriages were so successful that around November/December 1901 the American Bicycle Company launched the International Motor Car Company to concentrate on car production. They made both steam and gasoline-driven models but as the public favoured the gasoline models so steam carriage production ceased in 1903 and the Company concentrated on gasoline-driven models under the name Pope-Toledo.
What is considered by many to be the first marketable popular steam car appeared in 1899 from the Locomobile Company of America, located in Watertown, Massachusetts and from 1900 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Locomobile manufactured several thousand of its Runabout model in the period 1899-1903, designed around a motor design leased from the Stanley Steamer Company. The company ceased producing steam cars in 1903 and changed to limited-production, internal combustion powered luxury automobiles. In 1922 it was acquired by Durant Motors and discontinued with the failure of the parent company in 1929.
Perhaps the best-known and best-selling steam car was the Stanley Steamer, produced from 1896 to 1924. Between 1899 and 1905, Stanley outsold all gasoline-powered cars, and was second only to the electric cars of the Columbia Automobile Company in the US. It used a compact fire-tube boiler to power a simple double-acting two-cylinder engine. Because of the phenomenal torque available at all engine speeds, the steam car's engine was typically geared directly to the rear axle, with no clutch or variable speed transmission required. Until 1914, Stanley steam cars vented their exhaust steam directly to the atmosphere, necessitating frequent refilling of the water tank; after 1914, all Stanleys were fitted with a condenser, which considerably reduced their water consumption.
In 1906 the Land Speed Record was broken by a Stanley steam car, piloted by Fred Marriott, which achieved 127 mph (204 km/h) at Ormond Beach, Florida. This annual week-long "Speed Week" was the forerunner of today's Daytona 500. This record was not exceeded by any car until 1910, and, though Barber-Nichols later held the US steam-powered record, the FIA international record was only broken by another steam car on August 25, 2009 by Team Inspiration of the British Steam Car Challenge (see below).
Doble Steam Car
Attempts were made to bring more advanced steam cars on the market, the most remarkable being the Doble Steam Car which shortened start-up time very noticeably by incorporating a highly efficient monotube steam generator to heat a much smaller quantity of water along with effective automation of burner and water feed control. By 1923, Doble's steam cars could be started from cold with the turn of a key and driven off in 40 seconds or less. When the boiler had achieved maximum working pressure, the burner would cut out until pressure had fallen to a minimum level, whereupon it would re-ignite; by this means the car could achieve around 15 miles per gallon (18.8 litres/100 km) of kerosene despite its weight in excess of 5,000 lb (2,268 kg). Ultimately, despite their undoubted qualities, Doble cars failed due to poor company organisation and high initial cost.
Alena steam car
The Alena Steam Car was an American car planned for manufacture in 1922 by the Alena Steam Products Company of Indianapolis, Indiana which mainly built commercial vehicles and tractors. Only two cars were built, both touring models; each had a wheelbase of 126 inches (3,200 mm).
Davis steam car
Endurance steam car
The Endurance Steam Car was a steam car manufactured in the United States from 1922 until 1924. The company had its origins in the Coats Steam Car and began production on the East Coast before shifting operations to Los Angeles. There, one single touring car was made before the factory moved again, this time to Dayton, Ohio where one more car was built, a sedan, before the company folded.
Steam cars dropped-off in popularity following the adoption of the electric starter which eliminated the need for risky hand cranking to start gasoline-powered cars. The introduction of assembly-line mass production by Henry Ford, which hugely reduced the cost of owning a conventional automobile, was also a strong factor in the steam car's demise as the Model T was both cheap and reliable. Additionally, during the 'heyday' of steam cars, the internal combustion engine made steady gains in efficiency, matching and then surpassing the efficiency of a steam engine when the weight of a boiler is factored in.
Mid-20th century to the present steam cars
With the introduction of the electric starter, the internal combustion engine became more popular than steam, but the internal combustion engine was not necessarily superior in performance, range, fuel economy and emissions. The same is true today. Steam enthusiasts[who?] feel steam has not received its share of attention in the field of automobile efficiency.
Impact of Californian Legislation
In 1967 California established the California Air Resources Board and began to implement legislation to dramatically reduce exhaust emissions. This prompted renewed interest in alternative fuels for motor vehicles and a resurgence of interest in steam powered cars in the state.
California Highway Patrol
The idea for having patrol cars fitted with steam engines stemmed for an informal meeting in March 1968 of members of the California Assembly Transportation Committee. In the discussion, Karsten Vieg, a lawyer attached to the Committee, suggested that six cars be fitted with steam engines for testing by California District Police Chiefs. A Bill was passed by the legislature to fund the trial.
In 1969 the California Highway Patrol initiated the project under Inspector David S Luethje to investigate the feasibility of using steam engined cars. Initially General Motors had agreed to pay a selected vendor $20,000 toward the cost of developing an Rankine cycle engine, and up to $100,000 for outfitting six Oldsmobile Delmont 88's as operational patrol vehicles. This deal fell through because the Rankine engine manufacturers rejected the General Motors offer.
The plan was revised and two 1969 Dodge Polara's were to be retro-fitted with steam engines for testing. One car was to be modified by Don Johnson of Thermodynamic Systems Inc and the other by industrialist, William P Lear's, Lear Motors Incorporated. At the time the California State Legislature was introducing strict pollution control regulations for automobiles and the Chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, John Francis Foran, was supportive of the idea. The Committee also was proposing to test four steam powered buses in the San Francisco Bay area that year.
Instead of a Polara, Thermodynamic Systems, were given a late model Oldsmobile Delmont 88. Lear's were given a Polara but it does not appear to have been built. Both firms were given 6 months to complete their projects with Lear's being due for completion on 1 August 1969. Neither car had been completed by the due date and in November 1969 Lear was reported as saying the car would be ready in 3 months. Lear's only known retrofit was a Chevrolet Monte Carlo unrelated to the project. As for the project, it seems to have never been completed.
Both Johnson and Lear had contemplated constructing steam powered cars for the Indy 500, Johnson first in the early 1960s when with Controlled Steam Dynamics and in 1968 with Thermodynamic Systems and Lear in 1969. A third steam racing car was contemplated by a consortium of Planning Research Corporation and Andy Granatelli of STP Corporation. Lear proceeded with the idea and constructed a car, but ran out of funds, while trying to develop the engine. The car is thought to be at the National Automobile and Truck Museum of the United States in Auburn, Indiana. Johnson was also noted as working on a steam powered helicopter.
National Air Pollution Control Competition
In 1969 the National Air Pollution Control Administration announced a competition for a contract to design a practical passenger-car steam engine. Five firms entered. They were the consortium of Planning Research Corporation and STP Corporation; Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio; Continental Motors Corporation, Detroit; Vought Aeronautical Division of Ling-Temco-Vought, Dallas; and Thermo Electron Corporation, Waltham, Massachusetts.
1969 GM Concept Steam Cars
In 1969 GM introduced two experimental steam powered cars. One was the SE 124 based on a converted Chevrolet Chevelle and the other was designated SE 101 based on the Pontiac Grand Prix. The SE 124 had its standard gasoline engine replaced with a 50 hp power Besler steam engine, using the 1920 Doble patents; the SE 101 was fitted with a 160 hp steam engine developed by GM Engineering.
Saab steam car
As a result of the 1973 oil crisis, SAAB started a project in 1974  codenamed ULF headed by Dr. Ove Platell which made a prototype steam-powered car. The engine used an electronically-controlled 28 pound multi-parallel-circuit steam generator with 1 millimetre bore tubing and 16 gallons per hour firing rate which was intended to produce 160 hp (119 kW) continuous power, and was about the same size as a standard car battery. Lengthy start-up times were avoided by using air compressed and stored when the car was running to power the car upon starting until adequate steam pressure was built up. The engine used a conical rotary valve made from pure boron nitride. To conserve water, a hermetically sealed water system was used. The project was cancelled and Ove Platell started the company Ranotor with his son Peter Platell. The company has developed a steam hybrid that uses the exhaust heat from an ordinary petrol engine to power a small steam engine, thus reducing fuel consumption by 20%.
In 1974, the British designer Peter Pellandine produced the first Pelland Steamer to a contract with the South Australian Government. It had a fibreglass monocoque chassis (based on the internal combustion-engined Pelland Sports) and used a twin-cylinder double-acting compound engine. It has been preserved at the National Motor Museum at Birdwood, South Australia.
In 1977 the Pelland Mk II Steam Car was built, this time by Pelland Engineering in the UK. It had a three-cylinder double-acting engine in a 'broad-arrow' configuration, mounted in a tubular steel chassis with a Kevlar body, giving a gross weight of just 1,050 lb (476 kg). Uncomplicated and robust, the steam engine was claimed to give trouble-free, efficient performance. It had huge torque (1,100 ft·lbf or 1,500 N·m) at zero engine revs, and could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in under 8 seconds.
Pellandine made several attempts to break the land speed record for steam power, but was thwarted by technical issues.[specify]
Pellandine moved back to Australia in the 1990s where he continued to develop the Steamer. The latest version is the Mark IV.
From 1996, a R&D subsidiary of the Volkswagen group called Enginion AG was developing a system called ZEE (Zero Emissions Engine). It produced steam almost instantly without an open flame, and took 30 seconds to reach maximum power from a cold start. Their third prototype, EZEE03, was a three-cylinder unit meant to fit in a Škoda Fabia automobile. The EZEE03 was described as having a "two-stroke" (i.e. single-acting) engine of 1,000 cc (61 cu in) displacement, producing up to 220 hp (164 kW) (500 N·m or 369 ft·lbf). Exhaust emissions were said to be far below the SULEV standard. It had an oilless engine with ceramic cylinder linings using steam instead of oil as a lubricant. However, Enginion found that the market was not ready for steam cars, so they opted instead to develop the Steamcell power generator/heating system based on similar technology.
British Steam Car Challenge
On 25 August 2009, Team Inspiration of the British Steam Car Challenge broke the long-standing record for a steam vehicle set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906, setting a new speed record of 139.843 mph (225.055 km/h) at the Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave Desert of California. This was the longest standing automotive record in the world. It had been held for over 100 years.
The car was driven by Charles Burnett III. FIA land speed records are based on an average of two runs (called 'passes') in opposite directions, taken within an hour of each other – in this case the maximum speeds reached were 136.103 mph (219.037 km/h) on the first run and 151.085 mph (243.148 km/h) on the second.
On August 26, 2009 the same car, driven this time by Don Wales, the grandson of Sir Malcolm Campbell, broke a second record by achieving an average speed of 238.679 km/h (148.308 mph) over two consecutive runs over a measured kilometre. This was also recorded and has since been ratified by the FIA.
In popular culture
- Keith Roberts' Alternate history novel Pavane makes many references to steam land transport. In this alternate history, the death of Queen Elisabeth I in 1588 allows the Catholic Church to dominate world history, and the Index Prohibitorum includes petrol vehicles with engines larger than 100cc. The first chapter of the novel (set in 1968 through 1985) first describes steam transports made by Foden. In the last chapter, Corfe Gate reference is made to 100cc petrol powered 'Butterfly Cars' which rely as much on wind power as petrol engines for motive power. In addition, one of the knights of the castle is known to own a Steam Car - specifically, a Bentley, which needs his tending during harsh winters to 'prevent the block from freezing and breaking'.
- In Ward Moore's alternate history novella Bring the Jubilee, "trackless locomotives" referred to as "minibiles" are used in wealthy nations for personal transportation. In this world, internal combustion was never discovered and machines are always powered by steam.
- In another 'alternate history' novel The Two Georges, the authors Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss describe a North America where steam cars are generally used and Richard Nixon is a used car dealer.
- Specific makes of steam car (such as Locomobile) feature in other novels, such as The Chase by Clive Cussler.
- In Meredith Willson's The Music Man, conman Harold Hill reveals that he used to be in the steam automobile business until "someone actually invented one."
- In the movie Cars, Stanley Steamer is the founder of the town of Radiator Springs.
- Setright, L.J.K. (1974). Northey, Tom, ed., ed. Steam: The Romantic Illusion. World of Automobiles. Vol 19 (London: Orbis). pp. 2170–2171.
- Georgano, G.N. (1985). Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886-1930. London: Grange-Universal.
- Combe, Jean-Marc; Escudier, Bernard (1986). L'Aventure scientifique et technique de la vapeur. Paris, France: editions du CNRS. ISBN 2-222-03794-8.
- Kimes, Beverly Rae (editor) and Clark, Henry Austin, jr., The Standard Catalogue of American Cars 1805-1942 , 2nd edition, Krause Publications (1989), ISBN 0-87341-111-0
- Walton, J.N. (1965–1974). "Doble Steam Cars, Buses, Lorries, and Railcars". Light Steam Power (Isle of Man, UK).
- David Burgess Wise. The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Automobile.
- "The True Story of the Paxton Phoenix". Road and Track: 13–18. April 1957.
- "Modern Steam". Stanleysteamers.com. 2001-02-23. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
- Birth of the Steam Bus, S S Mine, The Steam Automobile, Vol 13 No 4, 1971, Chicargo, Illinous, page 3
- Article by Don C Woodward, The Deseret News, 17 September 1969, page 7
- Article, The Tuscaloosa News, 19 November 1969, page 4
- Steam Powered Car Tesing to Begin, St Petersburg Times, 28 July 1969, page 25
- Article, Reading Eagle, 27 February 1969, page 32
- Article, Arizona Republic, 9 March 1969, Page 68
- Anti-pollution efforts revive interest in steamers, The Sunday News and Tribune, 24 August 1969, Page 5
- "GM Takes Its Wraps Off Its Steam Cars." Popular Science, July 1969, p. 84-85.
- The Steam Automobile: Is The Steam Engine the Prime Mover of the Future?
- Teknikens Värld: Ånghybridmotorn kan snart vara här
- Popular Science: Saab Tests Steam Power for Small Cars
- "Feature Article – Clean & "Ezee" - 07/01". Autofieldguide.com. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
- "Ghost in the machine". Newscientist.com. 2001-12-15. Retrieved 2009-08-18.
- "The British Steam Car Challenge". Steamcar.co.uk. 1985-08-18. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
- "UK team breaks steam car record". BBC News online. 2009-08-25. Retrieved 2009-09-19.