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Here’s What Steam-Powered Cars Were Like Before the Combustion Engine

The Doble brothers’ built a beautiful steam car in 1924 but mismanagement kept it from being a financial sucess

1924 Doble steam car at the Henry Ford Museum (NAParish via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))
smithsonian.com

In 1917, visitors to the National Automobile Show in New York City had a clear favorite among the nearly 100 new cars on display. It was the most powerful vehicle at the show and sported simple controls: a steering wheel, a brake pedal, a reverse pedal and a throttle knob. Also, unlike every other car there, the Doble Detroit ran on steam.

After the show, the manufacturer, General Engineering Company, raked in more than 5,000 deposits for the car. Abner Doble and his brothers John, Warren and Bill, were just steps away from building a steam car empire. Unfortunately, they couldn’t deliver, writes Alan Bellows for Damn Interesting. Publicly, the Dobles blamed steel shortages due to World War I, but the real reason was that the car ran inconsistently. That’s a typical story in the history of the brothers’ quest to build "The Last Great Steam Car," as Bellows relates.

They came close with the Model E, developed in 1924. One version of the car was able to accelerate from 0 to 75 miles per hour in ten seconds. Bellows describes the road test by the Automobile Club of America:

At the turn of the key, the boiler lit with a throaty burst reminiscent of a gas furnace, and the gauges began to twitch. The boiler reached its operating pressure inside of forty seconds, and the driver experimentally turned the throttle knob on the steering wheel. With a low hum, the car’s steam engine briskly pushed the vehicle forward with 1,000 foot-pounds of torque, smoothly accelerating the car and its four passengers to forty miles per hour in just just 12.5 seconds. As they drove the test vehicle further, they found that its evenly-distributed weight lent it surprisingly good handling in spite of its great mass.

But it wasn't quite right yet. The brakes needed work to stop the beheamoth, which weighed more than 5000 pounds. And Abner, a perfectionist, kept the company’s cars from true sucess. Even the Model E was too expensive for anyone but the wealthy and Abner kept tinkering with the design, so people said no two Model E’s were ever the same. The company went under in 1931 after Abner faced legal trouble for selling stock illegally to raise money.

Nostalgia over steam cars, and especially the Model E, still runs strong for those in the know. Some people hope that steam cars may make a comeback. Jay Leno writes about his Doble for Popular Mechanics:

The smoothness and force of the acceleration, however, never fail to amaze me — it's like the Hand of God pushing you along. I was running at 85 mph the other day, and there was more to go. It's dead silent on the road, just wooooooooshhhhhh!!!

Yes, Jay Leno. Here he is, enjoying that woosh:

H/T Hacker News

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