In 1917, then Annual National Automobile Show in New York City filled more than four floors of the latest and most beautiful mechanized carriages. The exhibition heralded 91 gasoline cars, five electric autos, and one sold steam powered vehicle.
Yet, the steamer was the talk of the town, manufactured by Abner Doble, and not by the Stanley Steamer company. The car was called the Doble Detroit. The New York Times reported that “the crowd about it was so great that it could not be penetrated. While the prototype was on display, thousands came to see it and advance sales soared — though the Doble Detroit had no price sticker or specific date of delivery.
Steam offered something that gas buggies could not. Simplicity, silence, power, fuel efficiency, virtually no vibrations, and low emissions. Steam engines used kerosene fuel very effectively and the cars had no gears, clutch, or transmission. Step on the throttle and the steamer shot out at amazing direct-drive speed.
No, they weren’t perfect. Chassis and boilers were very heavy. Starting it was not always instantaneous; it did take about a minute or so to get up “a head of steam” for propulsion. You needed a plumber and a boilermaker to do engine repairs.
But Doble was an ingenious inventor. He created a honeycombed cellullar condenser that dramatically increased the radiating surface of the radiator. His condensing boiler system, innovated in 1913, dramatically extended the range of his design from 1,000 to 1,500 miles on 24 gallons of water.
Was it slow? Not hardly! When the boiler was at pressure, usually with a minute, the car could easily accelerate to 80 MPH. Zero to 60 in 12 seconds was the norm.
Other steam manufacturers were in the marketplace: White, , the Locomobile, Stanley, and others worked to bring steam propulsion to American and European drivers. The roadways of the early 1900’s were filled with steamers.
Doble was ambitious, pretentious, and a perfectionist. He demanded workmanship that was near impossible to maintain in a world moving into modern assembly line logistics. He continued to influence the automotive world and capture the attention of high-end buyers. He developed steam for large buses and trucks. Doble even had a design for an aircraft engine.
By the early 1930’s, gasoline engines dominated road and field. Ford had engineered a car that was affordable and effective. The petrochemical world was pumping liquid gold from the ground by the millions of barrels and making the refined gasoline cheap and more readily available in town and country.
Doble’s cars slowly evaporated from the scene by the 1940’s.
In the 1960’s, when US government began imposing strict hydrocarbon emission limits on cars, thoughts of steam flickered back. Sparking the interest were congressional hearings on alternative energy and an interest in modern steam engine evolution. Ford and GM both looked into the engineering of newer, lighter weight vehicles and steam propulsion. William Lear, the Elon Musk of the Sixties, spent considerable time away from his highly successful Lear Jet business to tool about steam alternatives. None ever panned out.
Experimental and hobbyist innovators continue to consider steam. Electric cars continue to capture the imagination of corporate and dot com billionaires.
Carbon footprints may, one day, show that electric cars, as gas cars, still leave too much behind in our environment. Perhaps, someone will return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The Paxton Phoenix, a steam powered car in the late 20th Century.
Douglas Arnold, The Ingenuity Guru, is a writer, workshop leader, and speaker on ingenuity, imagination, and creativity. His upcoming book “Ingenuity!” focuses on sparking greater innovation in the workplace and community. His weekly podcast “Ingenuity180” airs here on this blog every Thursday, You are invited to follow his blog and on Twitter @DouglasArnold