Steam car

Steam car
White touring car (1909)

A steam car is a light car (automobile) powered by a steam engine.

Steam locomotives, steam engines capable of propelling themselves along either road or rails, developed around one hundred years earlier than internal combustion engine cars although their weight restricted them to agricultural and heavy haulage work on roads. The light car developed contemporaneously with both steam and 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 the steam railway locomotive, it initially had the advantage. In 1900 the steam car was broadly superior and even managed to hold absolute land speed records. By 1920 the internal combustion engine had progressed to such a point that the steam car was an anachronism.

Few steam cars have been built since the 1920s, although the technology is not implausible and projects intermittently occur to recreate a "modern" steam car with modern 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 drivetrain, making the car heavier (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, although most of these are now less important than in its heyday. 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.



Boiler in a 1924 Stanley Steamer Serie 740. To the right is the condenser

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.[citation needed] 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 could take over a minute 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.[1]

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.[1]

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 a practical proposition. Limitations in manufacturing technology and the poor condition of road surfaces meant that nothing that could be realistically regarded as a 'steam car', suitable for personal transportation, was created until the end of the 19th century.

Amédée Bollée

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'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. The lay-out more closely resembled much later motor cars than other steam vehicles.

Cederholm brothers

In 1892, painter Jöns Cederholm and his brother, André, a blacksmith, designed their first car, a two-seater, introducing a condenser in 1894. It was not a success.[2]

De Dion & Bouton steam vehicles

The development by Serpollet of the flash steam boiler[3] 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. In the face of the flood of IC 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.[2] 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, MA), Cotta (Lanark, IL), Crouch (New Brighton, PA), Hood (Danvers, MA; lasted just one month), Kidder (New Haven, CT), Century (Syracuse, NY), and Skene (Lewiston, ME; the company built everything but the tires). By 1903, 43 of them were gone. In 1923, Brooks (Canadian) opened for business, lasting until 1926.[2]

Toledo Steam Carriage

In 1900 the American Bicycle Co. of Toledo, Ohio created a 6.5 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. In September 1901 two Toledo steamers, one model B (a model A machine 1,000 to 2,000 pounds/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. Steam carriage production ceased in 1903 and the Company concentrated on gasoline-driven models under the name Pope-Toledo.

Locomobile Runabout

The engine of a modern Locomobile steam car
Advertisement for the White Sewing Machine Company's 1905 model
Stanley steam car, (1923)

What is considered[by whom?] the first marketable popular steam car appeared in 1899 from the Locomobile Company of America located in Watertown, Massachusetts an 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, fuel-powered[clarification needed] luxury automobiles. In 1922 it was acquired by Durant Motors and demised with the failure of the parent company in 1929.[4]

White Steamer

The White Steamer was manufactured in Cleveland, Ohio from 1900 until 1910 by the White Motor Company.[citation needed]

Stanley Steamer

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 Columbia Electric in the US.[2] 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,[citation needed] 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[5] 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.

Paxton Phoenix

Abner Doble developed the Doble Ultimax engine for the Paxton Phoenix steam car, built by the Paxton Engineering Division of McCulloch Motors Corporation, Los Angeles. Its sustained maximum power was 120 bhp (89 kW). The project was eventually dropped in 1954.[6]

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

The Davis Steam Car was an American steam car. Only a prototype was built, in 1921, and even the existence of this is in doubt. A twin-cylinder car, it was announced as having a 120-inch (3,048 mm) wheelbase; the touring car was listed at $2300.[7]

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. Here, one single touring car was made before the factory moved again, this time to Dayton, Ohio; one more car was built, a sedan, before the company folded.[7]


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.

Modern steam cars

With the introduction of the electric starter, the internal combustion engine became more popular than steam, and the Model T was considerably less expensive than any steam car. But the internal combustion engine was not necessarily superior in terms of performance, range, fuel economy and emissions. The same is true today. Many steam enthusiasts feel steam has not received its share of attention in the discussion of automobile efficiency.[8]

Saab steam car

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.[citation needed] 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), 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.

Pelland Steamer

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/1,491 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.

Pellandine moved back to Australia in the 1990s where he continued to develop the Steamer. The latest version is the Mark IV.

Enginion Steamcell

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).[9] 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.[10]

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)[11][12] 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. As of August 25 the record is subject to official confirmation by the FIA.

On August 26, 2009 the British Steam Car, driven this time by Don Wales, the grandson of Sir Malcolm Campbell, broke a second record by achieving an average speed of 148.308 mph (238.679 km/h) over two consecutive runs over a measured kilometre. This was also recorded and again, and has since been ratified by the FIA.

In popular culture

A fictional steam car shaped like an elephant, roaming British-ruled India in Jules Verne's novel "The Steam House" (illustration by Léon Benett).
  • 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.

See also

  • List of steam car manufacturers


  1. ^ a b Setright, L.J.K. (1974). Northey, Tom, ed.. ed. Steam: The Romantic Illusion. Vol 19. Orbis. pp. 2170–2171. 
  2. ^ a b c d Georgano, G.N. (1985). Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886-1930. London: Grange-Universal. 
  3. ^ Combe, Jean-Marc; Escudier, Bernard (1986). L'Aventure scientifique et technique de la vapeur. Paris, France: editions du CNRS. ISBN 2-222-03794-8. 
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Walton, J.N. (1965-1974). "Doble Steam Cars, Buses, Lorries, and Railcars". Light Steam Power (Isle of Man, UK). 
  6. ^ "The True Story of the Paxton Phoenix". Road and Track: 13–18. April 1957. 
  7. ^ a b David Burgess Wise. The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Automobile. 
  8. ^ "Modern Steam". 2001-02-23. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  9. ^ "Feature Article – Clean & "Ezee" - 07/01". Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  10. ^ "Ghost in the machine". 2001-12-15. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  11. ^ "The British Steam Car Challenge". 1985-08-18. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  12. ^ "UK team breaks steam car record". BBC News online. 2009-08-25. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 

External links

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