Are Steam-Powered Cars in Our Future?

072115 Chris Banner

Henry Ford Museum August 2012 70 (1907 White Model G steam touring car) by Michael Barera

Henry Ford Museum August 2012 70 (1907 White Model G steam touring car) by Michael Barera

The horse was still the primary mode of transportation at the turn of the 20th Century in Europe and America, but that was poised to change.  As people became more prosperous, they turned to the newly invented motor vehicle—available in steam, gasoline, or electric versions—for travel. Steam was already an established energy source for transportation, having proven reliable for powering trains, and by the 1850s it was viable to produce steam vehicles on a commercial basis. While initially more popular with the public than gasoline vehicles, steam cars were eventually a commercial failure. The current interest in alternative energy sources, however, has led to a renewed interest in developing a steam-powered vehicle for personal travel.

The first recorded automobile parade was held on November 4th, 1899, in downtown Manhattan. At least ten different makes and models are seen in the video. Gasoline, electric, and steam-powered machines all took part in the parade.  No one type of vehicle was particularly dominant, but that would soon change.

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You can view the footage of the parade from the Library of Congress Here

In 1900 the first National Auto Show was held at Madison Square Garden. The crowd favored the design and quality of the steamers over the electrics and the gassers. Because of the large amount of steam engine experience, designers of the steam car did have an advantage; they were highly automated and, with no clutch or gearbox, were very easy to drive. By comparison the gasoline-fueled vehicles had several safety issues; the hand-crank used to start the vehicles broke the wrists of some operators and the necessity to use a clutch and shift gears made them difficult to operate.

But by 1901, new oil fields discovered in Texas made gasoline a more affordable fuel. By 1908, Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T was both widely available and relatively inexpensive as compared to steam cars. The Model T was actually six times cheaper than the most popular steam car at the time. With this price disparity, gasoline fueled vehicles grew in popularity.

Yet steam cars were still progressing in both technology and performance faster than the others. In 1906 the Land Speed Record for wheel-driven vehicles was held by Fred Marriott, who piloted a Stanley steam car: it achieved 127 mph at Ormond Beach, Florida. It would be several years until a vehicle with an internal combustion engine would be able to set a comparable speed record.

In 1921, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, which eliminated the need for a manual hand crank. Drivers no longer had to worry about hand-cranking the vehicle and snapping a wrist if it misfired or being run-over if they tried to start it in gear. Popularity for gasoline-fueled vehicles increased further.

Stanley Steamer Boiler

Stanley Steamer Boiler

It was simply too hard for manufactures of steam powered vehicles to compete with the lower cost vehicles, but they continued to try and capture the public’s interest. In 1923 an American steam car maker introduced the Doble which had several technical advances, including a steam condenser which allowed the water supply to last for as much as 1,500 miles, improved acceleration, and an improved ignition system, but a variety of manufacturing and legal problems plagued the company and very few models were created (“The Magnificent Doble,” n.d.)

Commercial interest in steam cars dwindled, but enthusiasts acquired vehicles for preservation. Many early models are still in existence. Ironically, many have been preserved by the Henry Ford Museum, the very company whose innovations in design and manufacturing helped lead to the downfall of the steam-powered car. There are many steam rallies, steam car shows, and steam car associations all over the world. Many enthusiasts believe steam engines could actually be superior to the internal combustion engine in modern vehicles.

As Sebastian Anthony (2013) notes in his article, “Are Steam Cars Poised for an Epic Comeback,” cars with steam engines can use almost any type of fuel. Because of the constant pressure, they do not require gearing. For urban driving, where stopping and starting consumes huge amounts of fossil fuels, the continuous power of steam engines would be more efficient. Anthony states:

Technology has come a long way since the 1920s, too — most notably, we’re now masters of materials. Original steam cars needed huge, heavy boilers to withstand the heat and pressure, and even small steam cars weighed a couple of tons as a result. With modern materials, steam cars could be as light as their ICE cousins. Throw in an advanced condenser and some kind of flash boiler, and it should be possible to build a steam car with decent efficiency and a warm-up time that’s measured in seconds rather than minutes (2013, para. 6).

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In 2009 a group called Team Inspiration worked to set the Land Speed record with a steam car. The stated idea behind the project was to “inspire young engineers to think outside the usual parameters and do something extraordinary” (Rich, n.d.). The vehicle ended up with a two-stage turbine and 12 computer-controlled mini bore boilers. Charles Burnett III successfully piloted the vehicle to 139.843 mph run and Don Wales set a second record for a measured kilometer, averaging 148.308 mph on two runs. You can view a documentary of the project Here.

It would be interesting to see if this project does inspire engineers to “do something extraordinary” and create a steam car for the modern era. Imagine the possibilities where these vehicles are not regulated to a handful of enthusiasts and museums, but fill our roadways as daily drivers . . .

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References

Anthony, S. (2013). Are steam cars poised for an epic comeback? ExtremeTech. Retrieved from http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/148416-are-steam-cars-poised-for-an-epic-comeback

Rich, B. (n.d.). How we got involved with the Land Speed Record Steam Car. The Steam Car Club of Great Britain. Retrieved from http://www.steamcar.net/lsr-history.html

The Magnificent Doble. (n.d.). The Steam Car Club of Great Britain. Retrieved from http://www.steamcar.net/andy-patterson.html


 

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