“Come on, do it for me, just a little more, a bit more!”, Fred Marriot muttered under his breath as he coaxed the car down the flat stretch of beach. The air pressure against his face and goggles grew stronger and stronger and forced the driver to bend his head down and tighten his grip on the steering wheel, as the car’s speed increased and the light wooden frame of the vehicle began to vibrate ever so imperceptibly. Eighty-five, ninety, ninety-five miles per hour, and still the car’s speed continued to increase. From the crest of a dune, a small crowd held its breath as it watched the mechanical creature shoot by on the compact, damp sand at Ormond Beach, Florida on a clear and sunny morning in the year 1906. The car remained stable as it roared past the two flags marking the end of the one-mile run. It took the driver almost another half-a-mile to gradually slow down, but he became aware of shouting and a commotion behind him even before bringing the car to a complete stop. “Fred, Fred, you did it, you did it! One hundred and twenty-seven, a hundred ‘n twenty-seven!” The first one to reach the car was one of the young mechanics who had helped to prepare for the record-breaking attempt. It took a few seconds for the information to sink in, but soon the two men had been swamped in a joyous heap of arms and legs as the crowd caught up with them. One hundred and twenty-seven miles per hour! A new land speed record and, what’s more, established by a steam-powered automobile!
Although the first steam cars were developed in the late 1700’s, it was necessary to wait for the invention of the high pressure steam engine in the early 1800’s and the improvement of road conditions later that century before steam power could find any practical application in a road vehicle suitable for personal transportation. Until the introduction of the electric starter in 1911, steam-powered and electric cars outsold gasoline-powered cars by a wide margin. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were eighty-four manufacturers of steam cars in the United States alone, most of them concentrated in New England.
One of the most successful producers was the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, which started production in 1896 and continued up to 1927. Their most famous model was the Stanley Steamer, which had a compact fire tube boiler to power a simple two-cylinder engine. Over the years, various editions were developed, both as passenger vehicles and as racers, one of which in 1906 established a world land speed record of over 127 mph (over 205 km/h), a record still standing to this day for steam-powered cars.
Another company which had developed successful technology, but which was a disaster from a financial point of view, was called Doble Steam Motors. This producer managed to considerably shorten the start up time by introducing a highly efficient steam generator to heat a much smaller quantity of water, thereby allowing the car to start from cold and drive off in less than forty seconds.
Steam-powered cars were not only more reliable and sturdy, but they also performed much better than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Thanks to the very high torque which was produced, a steam car’s engine could be geared directly to the axle, with no clutch or variable speed transmission required. The power unit in a typical passenger car included a kerosene or paraffin oil heated boiler installed in the front capable of producing 20 to 30 hp, and a twin cylinder steam engine located under the rear floor of the car giving up to 100 bhp. Steam cars were very silent and powerful, and by 1915 a Model B Doble could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (about 100 km/h) in about fifteen seconds, while a later Model E in 1923 could easily go from 0 to 75 mph (about 120 km/h) in an astonishing ten seconds!
What is even more noteworthy is the fact that steam-powered cars produce such low levels of pollution that existing, unmodified collectors’ models still traveling on the roads today easily meet and exceed even the stringent emission limits in California.
Most steam car producers had gone out of business by the 1930’s, although the oil crisis in 1973 encouraged the development of some very efficient prototypes in Europe, some of which produced as recently as 1996.
Perhaps the last word on steam cars has not been said!
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives
Author: Giovanni Gregorat