early steam powered cars
depicting the 1771 crash of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot's steam-powered car
into a stone wall.
A steam engine is an external combustion engine
(ECE - the fuel is combusted outside the engine), as opposed to an internal
combustion engine (ICE - the fuel is combusted within the engine). While
Gasoline-powered ICE cars have a fuel efficiency of 30%, steam engines are
capable of 90% efficiency. An additional benefit of the ECE is that the fuel
is burned at atmospheric pressure so does not produce carbon monoxide and
nitrogen oxide. Depending upon burner design, an ECE may also achieve
complete combustion of the carbon in its fuel, thus avoiding pollution.
Steam-powered cars and electric cars outsold
gasoline powered cars in many U.S. states prior to the invention of the
electric starter. Before the electric starter was put into production by
General Motors, internal combustion powered cars were started by hand-crank,
which was difficult and occasionally dangerous, 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 could take some time to start from cold, but once fully
fired up and working pressure was attained, could be instantly driven off.
The Doble Steam Car shortened the starting time very noticeably by
incorporating a flash steam generator which heated a much smaller quantity
of water as required in addition to lessening the severity of a steam leak
to the smaller volume of stored steam. By 1923, Abner Doble had developed an
automatic boiler and burner which allowed his steam cars to be started with
the turn of a key and driven off in 40 seconds or less. In addition, the
Doble managed to achieve 15 miles per gallon (18.8 litres/100 km) of
kerosene despite weighing in excess of 5,000 lbs (2.27 tonnes).
Ferdinand Verbiest is suggested to have built
what may have been the first steam powered car in about 1672.
Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's "Fardier à vapeur" ("Steam wagon") of 1769
Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's "Fardier à vapeur"
("Steam wagon") of 1769. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot constructed his Fardier à
vapeur ("Steam wagon") in 1769, which was intended for use by the French
Army as an artillery tractor to haul cannons. His vehicle was reported to be
capable of pulling 4 tonnes (3.9 tons), and of travelling at up to 4 km per
hour (2.5 mph). The heavy vehicle was of tricycle layout, with two rear
wheels and a steerable front wheel controlled by a tiller. In 1771 his
vehicle crashed into a brick wall in the world's first known automobile
accident, which combined with budget problems ended the French Army's
experiment with self-propelled vehicles.
In 1801 Richard Trevithick constructed a steam car which was equipped with
an inside hearth boiler, with a vertical cylinder, the single piston moved
the driving wheels by means of a crosshead. It was reported as weighing 1520
kg fully loaded, with a speed of 14.5 km an hour (9 mph) on the flat.
Regular intercity bus services by steam powered buses were started in
England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy
Gurney among others, but the heavy road tolls imposed by the Turnpike Acts
discouraged steam road vehicles and left the way clear for the horse bus
companies. Those companies which continued directed their efforts towards
traction engines and agricultural machines rather than road transport.
From 1861 onwards, harsh legislation virtually eliminated mechanically
propelled vehicles from the roads of Great Britain for 30 years, the
Locomotive Act of 1861 imposing restrictive speed limits on "road
locomotives" of 5 mph (8 km/h) in towns and cities, and 10 mph (16 km/h) in
the country. In 1865 the Locomotives Act of that year (the famous Red Flag
Act) further reduced the speed limits to 4 mph (6.4 km/h) in the country and
just 2 mph (3.2 km/h) in towns and cities, additionally requiring a man
bearing a red flag to precede every vehicle. At the same time, the act gave
local authorities the power to specify the hours during which any such
vehicle might use the roads. The sole exceptions were street trams which
from 1879 onwards were authorised under licence from the Board of Trade.
L'Obeissante - 1875
From 1873 to 1883 Amédée Bollée built a series
of steam powered vehicles with such names as Rapide and L'Obeissante. In his
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.
What is considered the first usable steam car appeared in 1899 from the
Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut which manufactured several
thousand of its Runabout model in the period 1899 - 1905, designed around a
motor design leased from the Stanley Steamer Company. The company ceased
producing steam cars in 1903, and was acquired by Durant Motors in 1922.
The White Steamer was manufactured in Cleveland, Ohio from 1900 until 1910
by the White Motor Company.
White steam car 1902
Perhaps the best known and best selling steam
car was the Stanley Steamer, produced from 1896 to 1924. It used a compact
fire-tube boiler mounted beneath the hood to power a simple double-acting
two-piston engine. Because of the phenomenal torque available at all engine
speeds, the steam car's engine was typically connected directly to the rear
axle, with no clutch or 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 improved their water usage.
1912 Stanley Steamer
In 1906 the World Land Speed Record was broken
by a Stanley steam powered car, piloted by Fred Marriot, which achieved 127
mph (203 km/h) at Ormond Beach, Florida. This annual week-long "Speed Week"
was the forerunner of today's Daytona 500.
Steam cars dropped off in popularity following the adoption of the electric
starter, which eliminated the need for risky hand cranks to start gasoline
powered cars. The introduction of mass production by Henry Ford, which
hugely reduced the cost of owning a conventional automobiles, was also a
strong factor in the steam car's demise as the Model T was both cheap and
Attempts were made to bring more advanced steam cars to market such as the
Doble Steam Car, but they ultimately failed due to high cost (in the case of
the Doble) and a perceived lengthy starting process, despite their economy
Modern steam cars
As a result of the 1973 oil crisis, SAAB
started a project in 1974 headed by Dr. Ove Platell which made a prototype
steam powered car. It used an electronically-controlled 28 pound multi
parallel circuit steam generator with 1 millimetre bore tubing and 16 gph
firing rate which was intended to produce 160 horsepower, and was about the
same size as a standard car battery. Lengthy start-up times were
circumvented by a system using compressed air that was stored when the car
was running and which powered 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
A company called Enginion AG has since 1996 been developing a system which
they have named SteamCell. It produces steam almost instantly without an
open flame, and takes 30 seconds to reach maximum power from a cold start.
Their third prototype, ZEE03, was fitted in Volkswagen and Skoda Fabia
autombiles. The ZEE03 was a two-stroke of 1000 cc (164 cubic inches)
displacement, producing up to 220 hp (500 nm). Exhaust emissions were far
below the SULEV standard. Since the water was recirculated, the engine used
steam instead of oil as a lubricant. However, Enginion found that the market
was not ready for steam cars, so they opted instead to produce power
generators based on the same technology