Looking Forward By Looking Back: A Brief History Of Steam Cars

I like old stuff. Sure new stuff is nice, and nobody wants to eat moldy old bread. But I am always impressed by the ingenuity and gusto of inventors who didn’t have the benefit of the Internet, telephones, and sometimes couldn’t even read. They just had an idea, and made it work with their own two hands. Now it wouldn’t be fair for me to accuse today’s engineers and inventors of lacking in good ideas, but too often it seems like a new idea means a complicated idea. So I am going to try and keep a weekly column on old ideas that never really took off, but to me still seem like there might be some merit to them.

Thus I present you a brief history of the steam car.

There is nothing so simple as steam power. Heat water, harness steam, move wheel. Some trains still use steam engines, albeit to entertain tourists more than anything else. But when trains began to fade and cars started to take over, there were many ideas regarding the best way to move the horseless carriage, and inevitably some people gravitated towards steam power. Surely you have heard of Stanley Steamer, right? Well, the brothers Stanley still hold the FIA world record for the fastest steam powered car, and it was little more than some axles, wheels, a steam engine and boiler all fitted into an upside down canoe!

Nicknamed the Rocket and made in conjunction with the Holmes & Robertson Canoe Company, the Stanley brothers had the revolutionary idea (at least for the time period) that aerodynamics mattered. They also reasoned that a lighter car required less power to move, so a canvas canoe was the perfect body to house their steam engine. And why not? I can’t count the number of Civic hatchbacks I have seen completely gutted and devoid of anything that might be considered comfortable or convenient. I also wouldn’t call those hatchbacks fast, but I digress.

So came the day that the Rocket, with racer Fred Marriott at the wheel, set a land speed record of 127 mph in a steam powered car. The mind boggling thing is, for nearly two decades after this record was set in 1906, no one even came close to breaking it in any other kind of car. The Rocket also holds the distinction as the fastest car under 30 horsepower as well, because even though the Stanley steam engine produced gobs of torque at all speeds, it produced little in the way of horsepower. But it had no need for a transmission or clutch, and special care was taken to conserve weight. Eventually, the Rocket was destroyed in 1907 during another land speed attempt, where the car was unofficially recorded going 190 mph, according to Marriott’s own account. But unaware of what a slight depression in an otherwise flat straightaway can do at those kind of excessive speeds, the Rocket was launched into the air 100 feet and smashed to bits. Marriott survived and healed, but it would be almost eighty years before another team would attempt a steam-powered land speed record. To read more on the Stanley Steam Rocket, check out Steamcar.net

But there was more to steam power than racing, a lot more as it turns out. Because going fast isn’t for everyone; some people want or need practicality in their car. Enter the Doble Steam Car. By 1910, one Ford Model T was coming off the production line every three minutes, and the internal combustion engine was about to steal the show from all other competitors. But that didn’t stop Abner Doble and his three brothers from putting together what is arguably one of the best steam vehicles ever produced.

The problem with steam cars, as you might imagine, is that they took some time to start up, sometimes as long as thirty minutes before there was enough pressure to move. Another problem was after thirty miles or so, the water tank needed to be refilled, which meant another thirty minutes of waiting for pressure to build. Neither efficient nor fun, but Doble figured out a way around these problems; he just never figured out a way to mass produce them.

Doble realized that heating a large tank of water was the least efficient way to do business, so he came up with a flash-boiler and utilized the carburetors and ignition systems of cars like the Model T to do business. A small amount of kerosene heated up the boiler, and a single 24 gallon tank of gas could take the Doble up to 1,500 miles. Doble also fixed the problem of cold starting, and even though the car was quite heavy for its day, it was still able to achieve speeds upwards of 75 mph.

Unfortunately, innovation is rarely cheap, and in the Doble’s case it was actually egregiously expensive; each car cost nearly $20,000, at a time when the Ford Model T cost just $850. To put that in today’s terms, a Model T cost about as much as a Honda Civic, where as the Doble-Detroit (as it was later referred to) was more in the range of a Ferrari 599 GTB. But the history of the Doble is worth reading so check out Damn Interesting for more on the Doble.

Thus, the Doble died during the height of the Great Depression, closing shop in 1931 after producing only a handful of their latest model, the Series E. Steam cars were largely forgotten over the next few decades, though a handful of examples cropped up here and there. A few individuals took it upon themselves to build their own steam cars out of kits or just spare parts. California contracted two companies to build steam cars in 1974 resulting in the Dutcher Steamcar, though it never made it into production. In the 1980’s, a team of engineers would try to break the old steam land speed record with their own rocket, the Steamin’ Demon. Built by Barber-Nichols Inc., this car made a single pass at 145 mph, unofficially breaking the steam-powered speed record. But, on a second attempt, the door flew off and a fire started in the undercarriage.

So now it is up to a team of limey British racers to break the world record in their steam-powered “Kettle”. They have already made a test run that took them up to 80 mph using steam technology that involves two-miles of tubing and heats 13 gallons of water to temperatures up to 1000 degrees C. The steam vapor is then injected into a turbine that spins up to 13,000 RPMs, which is supposed to shoot the car up to speeds of 170 mph. But unlike the Rocket and Doble, the Kettle and Demon look less like cars than they do space ships.  The British team will be hitting the Rogers Dry Lake Bed in Southern California as soon as this month, according to their website, for another shot at the 103-year old steam land speed record. So is there a chance steam technology might make a come back?

Maybe. A few years ago, BMW came up with the novel idea of using the exhaust gasses from a regular internal combustion engine to create heat. They experimented with a 1.8 liter engine, and wound up with a 15% decrease in fuel consumption while producing an extra 14 horsepower and 15 ft-lbs of torque. Heat exchangers on the exhaust heat fluid which turns into steam, which in turn helps power the engine. Of course that was all five years ago, and not much more has been heard about this technology since, though a Gizmag.com article suggest that the technology is being developed to come to market in the next decade or so. So maybe we have only five years left before steam cars of another variety return.

Do steam cars have a future? Hell if I know. It has been done before for sure, but there is probably a reason nobody has tried to reignite the steam car trend. But I still think it’s neat that there are any land speed records still standing from a century ago, and it’s a shame it is steam cars didn’t gain in popularity. But maybe the Brits and their new land speed record attempt will change all that and somebody will figure out a way to re-harness the power of steam for modern vehicular applications.

I think this is enough writing for one day, and kudos if you made it all the way through this exceedingly long post. So, does anyone happen to have a spare canoe they aren’t using…?

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.