Steam-driven cars

Steam-driven cars

Cars from the past that would
make ideal cars for the future

By John Silveira

Issue #36 • November/December, 1995

My car went in for repairs. I’m one of those people who can’t live without one. My job is 700 miles away and if I can’t make the commute every month, I can’t pay my bills.

“Clutch and transmission,” the mechanic said.

I braced myself.

“$625,” he added.

I suddenly felt lightheaded. I thought: I can’t pay my other bills if the car eats up all my money.

“We can start on it this morning if you leave it. It should be ready by tomorrow afternoon.”

I nodded dumbly.

“Do you need a ride?”

I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. My poker playing friend, O.E. MacDougal, had followed me to take the car in. He stood across the garage reading some of the funny signs posted on the walls.

The fellow shoved a work order at me to sign.

“I guess if you’re going to have cars, you’re going to have to have clutches and transmissions,” I said and signed.

“That’s not quite true.” It was Mac’s voice.

I turned to look at him. He was still reading the little placards.

“What did you say, Mac?”

He turned and looked at us. “I said, that’s not quite true.”

“Are you saying cars don’t need clutches and transmissions?”

“Some don’t.” He went back to reading.

“Your friend’s crazy,” the mechanic whispered and walked back into his office.

“Name one and I’ll buy it,” I said and I crossed the garage.

“Steam-driven cars.”

“Why don’t they need them?”

When the steam-driven car was in its heyday, this Lane Roadster, Model 8 was one of the kings of the road.

When the steam-driven car was in its heyday, this Lane Roadster, Model 8 was one of the kings of the road.

“Internal combustion engines require transmissions and clutches because at low speeds the engines don’t generate enough torque to turn the drive train. The transmission temporarily gears the engine’s power down until the car comes up to cruising speed. A steam engine generates high torque at all speeds, so it doesn’t need a transmission and clutch between the engine and drive train. In fact, in most cases, they’d just be in the way. So there’s no clutch or transmission to repair or to waste gas.”

“Waste gas?”

“About 40% of the internal combustion engine’s energy is lost through the drive train. Only about 10% of the energy is lost through the drive train in a steam-driven car.”

“You’re kidding.” This was getting interesting. “Are there any other advantages?”

“Sure. Even though a steam engine would be about same size as the engine it would replace, steam engines are lighter—which saves fuel. They’re also less complicated—meaning they’re cheaper to repair. They don’t need mufflers…”

“They don’t need mufflers?”

“Internal combustion engines make a racket because the engine is driven by a series of small high-pressure explosions that take place inside. In a steam engine, the burning takes place at standard air pressure, so there’s really no exhaust noise which is what the muffler was designed to muffle. Also, steam engines don’t need any kind of smog controls.”

“They don’t?”

“No. The pollutants caused by the internal combustion engine are the result of hurried, high pressure, and incomplete burning of the fuel. In a steam engine, it’s possible to have 100% combustion.

“In fact, steam engines don’t even need gasoline. They can run on lower grades of fuel than internal combustion engines. They can burn kerosene, fuel oil, even paint thinner. They could even be made to run on alcohol.”

The mechanic was standing in the doorway of his office now. He was listening.

I looked at my car. “Then why aren’t we hearing about them? Everyone’s talking about the electric cars replacing what we’ve got now.”

Mac smiled. “They were talking about electric cars back in the 1960s. They said they were going to be part of our future. They also said the breakthroughs to make them economically feasible were just around the corner. It’s 30 years later and they’re still in our future and the break-throughs are still just around the corner. The problems they were having in the 60s were with the batteries. They were expensive, heavy, had short life, short range, and they needed long periods to recharge. Those are the same problems they’re having today.

“In three and a half decades all they’ve produced are a bunch of ultralight, one-man curiosities that college students have cross country races with while people in regular cars zoom by and wonder what they’re doing.

“On the other hand, a viable steam-driven car really is just around the corner—that is, if the public really wants one. And if it does, three years of tooling up could put a steam-driven car on the road. One that would make us forget the electric car.”

“Are you saying we should abandon the electric car?” I asked.

“Did you hear me say that?”


“Do all the research we want on electric cars. But we shouldn’t take a workable solution—one that’s right here right now—and throw it out the door. The one they’re concentrating on may not even exist.”

“Then why’s everybody looking at electric cars to replace…” I waved my hand at my car “…that?”

“‘Everybody’ isn’t. It’s environmental groups, colleges who get research grants, and companies, including battery companies, that receive government money to support the whole business, as well as the politicians who cater to all these groups, that keep pushing them. It’s not the public that’s in love with them.”

“I’ve seen the results of polls that say the public wants them,” I said.

“Sure, the public wants the electric car promised in the polling questions. But they don’t want what’s been produced in the last 30 years nor what’s going to be available for the next 30.

“And as far as public opinion polls go, you could get the public to say they want a car that runs on peanut butter—if you guaranteed them that it would fulfill the promises we’ve been hearing about electric cars.

“A poll I’d like to see would be one that asks how people would feel about giving up their gasoline-powered cars, and all they’d get in return is what the electric car people have delivered so far—or even what they’re likely to deliver in the foreseeable future.”

“But the real poll to watch is that ultimate public opinion poll—the free market. According to it, the public doesn’t want them. Otherwise, they’d be buying them now.”

“But they’re not buying steam cars, either.”

“Nobody’s offering one. Not even on paper.”

We were now getting in Mac’s car getting ready to pull out. The mechanic had followed us outside. He was still trying to hear what Mac was saying. We drove onto Highway 101. Mac was taking me home to Ojai.

“But the government is helping finance a lot of the research. Doesn’t that mean there’s something to it?” I asked.

“The tobacco industry has gotten the government to subsidize it, too. That doesn’t mean smoking’s good for you.

“That’s true,” I said.

“The electric car has no foreseeable chance of winning against the gasoline engine in the marketplace. Because of that, electric car advocates have tried and succeeded in getting the government to support them with tax dollars. In fact, California has mandated that if auto manufacturers want to sell cars in the state, they must also offer electric cars by 1997—though I can’t imagine who’s going to buy them, other than the state itself.

“In fact, to make electric cars an attractive alternative, many of the electric car scenarios start out with laws making gasoline-powered cars illegal.

“But with the steam engine, a running model can be on the market in two or three years. They should have put half the effort into steam-powered cars that they put into electric cars back in the 60s. We’d have been driving steam cars by 1970.”

“Do you think so?”

“Sure I do. And it’s a car that could compete with the gasoline engine on its own terms—cost, weight, durability, performance, range, maintainability, and ease of refueling. And, with smog restrictions getting tougher and tougher every year, the onus would be on the internal combustion engine to catch up with the steam engine—something it hasn’t been able to do despite a century of work.”

He gripped the wheel a little tighter as if he was in thought. “In fact, it never will.”

“I’m a little confused,” I said.

He looked over at me as if prompting me to continue.

“I thought steam engines were an old concept that gasoline engines replaced.”

“They were pushed off the market by the gasoline engine. Not because the gasoline engine superseded them. They were just better marketed. Henry Ford had more to do with the fact that we drive internal combustion engine-powered vehicles than any merit we can ascribe to the engine.”

“How long has the automobile been around, anyway?”

Steam history

“The idea of a self propelled vehicle goes back at least as far as Homer in the Iliad. And steam power was proposed as the means of self-propelling a vehicle as early as the 1500s. But, before the first steam car was made people tried wind-driven automobiles…”


“Yeah, little sail cars.”

“When and where?”

“In the 1600s, in the Netherlands.

“There were also vehicles created that ran on gunpowder charges, coal gas, burning hydrogen, and finally, steam.

“By the way, the Greeks and Romans were the first to record observations about the power of steam. It’s interesting to speculate what the course of history would have been had they discovered a way to harness it. But they didn’t, and the world had to wait until the 17th century before the first steam-driven carriage was built in China.”

“Leave it to the Chinese to be first,” I said.

“The Chinese didn’t build it. The man who did it was Belgian.”

“What was he doing in China?”

“He was a Jesuit priest. His name was Ferdinand Verbiest. He built a steam-driven carriage for the Khan. It didn’t work the way modern steam engines do; it was based on an ancient Greek invention called an aeolipile.”

“How did it work?”

“It produced a stream of steam that was directed at an arrangement of vanes that were on a little wheel. Sort of like a primitive turbine. However, his work was known only to the Chinese; Europeans didn’t know about it for years. The Chinese, though now in possession of the world’s first and only steam-driven vehicle, didn’t try to develop it any further.

“A few years later a French physicist named Denis Papin also got the idea of using steam to drive a carriage. Unlike Verbiest, his idea was to use a piston and a cylinder, which was a significant improvement over Verbiest’s car. But it didn’t work the way a modern engine does. Instead of using steam pressure, it worked by creating a vacuum.”

“What do you mean?”

“Instead of using steam pressure to push a piston out of a cylinder, the cylinder was filled with steam, then it was quickly cooled and the condensing steam created a vacuum. The outside air pressure forced the piston back into the cylinder. But it’s not a very efficient way to produce power.”

“Why not?”

“The pressure of a vacuum can’t exceed 14.7 pounds per square inch because that’s all the pressure exerted on a perfect vacuum by the atmosphere at sea level.

“On the other hand, by using the positive pressure of steam, you can generate pressures of hundreds—or even thousands—of pounds per square inch.”

“Why didn’t anybody see the obvious, and use steam pressure instead of using a vacuum?”

“It wasn’t an oversight. The primitive state of metallurgy at the time made using high pressure dangerous. Boiler explosions caused by excessive pressures were a real threat. They killed people. Only as stronger steel was developed were experimenters willing to try using high pressure steam. By the early 19th century, an American named Oliver Evans was making practical high-pressure engines that worked.”

“So, what happened with Papin’s car? Why didn’t the automobile age start right then and there?”

“His car worked, but the engine was inefficient and the carriage was always in danger of being shaken apart because the roads were so bad. He finally abandoned his project to move on to other things.

“But others adopted his idea of using a piston and cylinder and refined the steam engine even further. They also found other uses for steam power. One of the most important was to remove water from coal mines.”

“Water from coal mines?”

“The English coal mines were nothing but holes in the ground and they were constantly filling with water.”

“Where’d the water come from?”

“Mostly from the water table. Once the mine shaft went below the water table, water constantly oozed in and threatened to flood it. At first muscle power, supplied by either man or beast, was used to lift it out of the mines. But an Englishman named Thomas Savery made a pump that used both the pressure of steam and the vacuum created by condensing steam to do the work. First he’d fill a large cylinder with steam, then he’d spray the outside of the cylinder to cool it. The steam condensed and created a vacuum. Water from the mine was sucked up a pipe and into the cylinder through a one-way valve. Then more steam was introduced into the cylinder again. The water couldn’t go back out through the one-way valve but there was a second one-way valve through which the water could escape. Once the incoming steam had forced all the water out, the cylinder was cooled again and the process was repeated.”

We turned onto Highway 33.

“Pretty ingenious,” I said.

“Several years later, another man, Thomas Newcomen, created another steam engine that was much like Savery’s, and pretty soon he and Savery teamed up and they began manufacturing engines. By today’s standards, their engines were terribly inefficient. They only converted about 1% of the thermal energy into usable work—modern steam and internal combustion engine convert almost 40%. About a half-century later, the Scot James Watt introduced modifications that made the steam engine even more efficient. But even his engine converted a mere 2% of the energy available into work.”

“So what was happening with the automobile during this time?”

“Not much. Another century would pass before the next steam-driven car was built. This time it was built by a Frenchman named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769.”

“Who was he?”

“He was a French military officer. He built a steam-powered vehicle he thought the French army would use to carry cannons and munitions. The seeds of mechanized warfare could have been planted then and there, but, as it turned out, the military wasn’t interested. So his carriage was adopted for use to carry people.”

“A bus?”

“That’s right. Using Cugnot’s invention, the French had steam-driven busses in Paris about the time the American Revolution was being fought.”

“How come I’ve never heard this.”

He shrugged. “Less than 20 years later, another steam-powered automobile was being driven in England by its inventor, a Scot named Richard Trevithick. By 1804 he’d also made a steam-driven locomotive and the era of railroads would have started right then and there except that the metallurgy needed to make durable rails hadn’t caught up with the new technology yet. It would be another decade before sturdy tracks could be built and deployed.

“That was the beginning of railroads in England.

“In the meantime, better and better engines were being made. One of the reasons was the cannon.”

“What do cannons have to do with engines?” I asked.

“To increase range and accuracy in cannons, the military needed to be able to create more precise bores in cannons. The drills they used, when applied to engines, meant better and more efficient cylinders and pistons.”

“So where was the automobile going now?”

“The first practical steam-driven cars were finally being made in England in the 1860s.”

“So that’s when the automobile industry started,” I said.

“No. They started making cars, but they didn’t last. There were immediate attempts to suppress them.”


“There were other industries that saw them as a threat to their businesses. The manufacturers of horse drawn carriages, the horse industry in general, and the even the burgeoning railroad system all realized the automobile would cut into their businesses. They used their influence to see to it that legislation was passed that would stifle the growth of the steam-carriage trade.

“They had a friendly Parliament also pass various restrictive laws against the steam-driven vehicles. Keep in mind that before the automobile there weren’t many goods roads in England, even though England was the most technologically advanced country of the time, and the best roads were the toll roads. The toll for a horse-drawn carriage was three pennies. Parliament made the toll for steam-driven vehicles £5. Since there were 240 pennies in a pound at that time, the toll cost 400 times as much for a steam-driven car as it did for any horse drawn carriage. Not only that, but Parliament also passed what were known as the Red Flag Acts. They made it unlawful for steam vehicles to be driven without a crew of at least three, including a flagman who had to walk ahead of the vehicle.

“The automobile industry folded and it would be another 30 years before it would start up again—and it wouldn’t be in Britain.

“I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the British encouraged the growth of an automobile industry—or at least not stood in its way—instead of destroying it. Since they were the most technologically advanced country of the time, they would have perfected the steam engine 60 years earlier, and they would have become the first major automobile manufacturer. It’s hard to say how such a technologically powerful industry would have changed the status of England as a world power. As it is, the steam engine was perfected too late and the internal combustion engine leaped ahead of it. And England is now a poor runner-up on the world stage, even behind another island power like Japan.

“Why didn’t the public rise up and stop efforts to suppress it?”

“The public didn’t know yet that it wanted automobiles.”

“When did that occur to them?”

“Not long afterward. The invention that probably had more to do with creating a favorable impression for the automobile in the public mind than anything else was the bicycle. Before the bicycle, people were content to think of transportation as either a horse or a collective thing, like a ship or train. Suddenly, the bicycle became common and millions were experiencing the wonders of independent, though not necessarily reliable, travel. People today don’t realize what an incredible impression the bicycle made on people. So as the automobile was perfected, they turned their eyes to it and really saw the possibilities.

“Meanwhile, in France, a man named Leon Serpollet developed a steam engine made strictly for an automobile instead of trying to adapt a locomotive’s engine to a car. By 1890, it was the best over-the-road vehicle that existed.

In 1902, his car set the land speed record at over 75 miles per hour. By 1906, the steam-powered cars built by the Stanley brothers in America had broken all the records several times and had pushed the record to over 127 mph, and by 1907 it had pushed the speed to almost 200 mph.

“Steam-driven cars set speed records it took internal combustion engines several years to match. It seemed like the car of the future, but it foundered.

“The trouble was, it hadn’t occurred to anyone to mass produce them. Then along came Henry Ford.

“If Ford had decided to channel his genius for production and marketing in the direction of steam, the steam engine would probably be powering the automobile today.”

This contemporary Chevy Suburban would be a perfect candidate for the performance of a modern steam engine.

This contemporary Chevy Suburban would be a perfect candidate for the performance of a modern steam engine.

“Why isn’t anybody trying to market a steam-driven car today?” I asked.

“The main obstacle appears to be money. Now that the gasoline engine holds the market, no one is willing to risk the enormous amount of money it would take to compete with it—and I don’t blame them. The steam engine will work. We already know it works. It may even work better than the conventional automobile engine.

“And no one is willing to take a gamble on the steam engine. The auto companies don’t want to have to take the gamble of tooling up on it and not having the public buy it. They’d lose a bundle if that happened.

“In fact, 30 years ago, when Congress scheduled hearings concerning the viability of the steam engine, the auto giants addressed the problems steam engines had experienced more than three quarters of a century earlier and failed to point out that, even at the time of the hearings, all those problems had been solved for over three decades.

“The oil companies also don’t want to see them. They don’t want to risk the capital investment they have in gasoline production.

“Battery manufacturers don’t want to see it happen because they expect to cash in on the battery bonanza if anything ever comes of electric cars. The environmentalists don’t want to see it because the electric car is an emotional issue for them. Politicians are not willing to back it because the only people who will really benefit from it are the public at large, and the politicians do not derive their power and campaign funds from the average citizen; they get it from the special interests.

“There are real possibilities of reintroducing the public to the use of steam by having it power other products.

“You guys think you’ve had a good thing with that diesel generator you ran up on the mountain to back up your photovoltaic system. But a steam system would not only be more efficient, it would be quieter. Not only that, a stationary system could be rigged to burn wood. Wouldn’t it be nice to generate electricity in the country burning wood or coal. Your readers would be doing it today if steam technology hadn’t fallen into the dark ages.”

We were approaching my house now. “This has been interesting,” I said. “But what about the articles Dave’s run in the past about electric cars?”

“I read them and they were interesting. Dave’s done a service welcoming articles about alternative energy and maybe someday a practical electric car will be built. But steam’s here today. It shouldn’t be ignored.”

“What do you think is the future of the steam-driven car?” I asked.

“My guess is, it’ll eventually make a comeback and then everyone will wonder why it wasn’t brought back earlier. But it will be because it couldn’t comeback until we were desperate for it.”

“Would you buy one if they came out next year?” I asked.

“Naw, I’d do just like I did with my computer: I’d wait a few years until they worked all the bugs out.”

“I thought you were a gambler,” I said.

“Calculated gambles,” he replied and smiled as we pulled into my driveway.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *