Car History 4U

History of Steam Powered Vehicles

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3.1 Engine Type & Efficiency

    • Type of Engine: The steam engine is an “external combustion engine”.  

    • Efficiency: Early steam engines were very inefficient - about 6%.
    • A figure that increased to about 50% in the later versions, nearly twice that of petrol powered internal combustion engines.

3.2 The First Steam Powered Motorised Vehicles

    • China: There are reports that a small steam powered trolley car was built by Ferdinand Verbiest (Belgian) in about 1672.
    • Verbiest constructed this vehicle whilst working in China as a Jesuit missionary.
    • Because this vehicle was capable of transporting a person, some believe that it may have been the world's first, if very basic, motorised car.
    • France: In 1769 Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French military engineer, constructed a three-wheeled steam powered carriage.
    • The vehicle, which could carry four persons, achieved a top speed of 2.25 mph (3.6 kph). 

    • The vehicle is considered to be the first to successfully employ a device for converting the reciprocating motion of a steam engine’s piston into rotary motion.
    • It did not carry reserves of water or fuel and as its boiler could only provide steam for about 12 to 15 minutes the driver had to stop frequently to add more water and re-fire the furnace. 
    • Within a year Cugnot had been commissioned to build a larger model for the transportation of artillery and capable carrying a load of about 4.5 tons (4,572kg).
    • This second “fardier a’ vapeur” vehicle, which weighed about 2.5 tonnes (2,500kg), was completed in 1771 at the Royal Arsenal in Paris.
    • Note: A fardier was a massive two-wheeled horse-drawn cart used by the army for the transportation of very heavy equipment such as cannon barrels.
    • Cugnot’s “fardier a’ vapeur” vehicle was designed to travel at 4.9 mph (7.8 kph) but only achieved about half that speed.
    • The vehicle was fitted with a single 51 inch (130 cm) diameter driving wheel and two 65 inch (165 cm) diameter rear wheels.

    • The single front wheel was steered by a double handle tiller type arrangement and a crude brake was fitted onto the front driving wheel.

      Cugnot's 1771 Fardier a' Vapeur
    • By 1772 trials of the vehicle had been abandoned.
    • In 1880 it was transferred to Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers.
    • This important vehicle can still be seen at the Musee des arts et metiers in Paris. See, select “Collections”, “Videos” and go to “Transports”. 

    • Britain : In 1799 Richard Trevithick was the first person to successfully build a high pressure steam engine. It operated at about 10 pounds per square inch.

    • In 1801 he built a three-wheeled steam road carriage called the "Puffing Devil" fitted with his high pressure "strong steam" engine.
    • It is reported to have weighed 3,344 lbs (1,520 kg) fully loaded and had a top speed of 9 mph (14.5 kph).
    • On Christmas Eve of that year the "Camborne Road Loco" carried several men some distance.

    • This was possibly the first public demonstration of transportation by a motorised vehicle. Three days later is was destroyed by fire.
    • By 1803 he had built another three-wheeled steam carriage called the “Puffing Dragon”, complete with seats and a “real carriage like appearance”.
    • In 1803 he drove it in London on demonstration runs and reached speeds of 8-9 mph (13-14 kph).
    • United States: William James built several steam powered vehicles and drove one of them on the streets of New York in 1829.
    • In about 1851 John Kenrick Fisher built a carriage for the American Steam Carriage Co. that had a top speed of 15 mph (24 kph).
    • Italy: The Bordino steam carriage was built in 1854.
    • The four-wheeled vehicle consisted of a Landau carriage body mounted on a chassis to which four wooden wheels were attached.
    • The rear mounted boiler provided steam to drive the twin cylinder steam engine mounted below the carriage.

3.3 Important Steam Powered Cars

    • Britain: Thomas Rickett made a three- wheeled steam powered car in 1860.
    • The vehicle, which had a rear mounted, high pressure (110 psi) coal fired boiler, had a reputed top speed of 19 mph (30 kph).
    • It had room for three passengers and a boilerman, with the front right hand side passenger operating the tiller steering mechanism and other controls.
    • The car went into production, making it possibly the first British production car.
    • France: Amedee Bollee built a range of advanced-design vehicles from 1873 to 1883.
    • His finely built steam powered carriages were individually named. The first one, built in 1873, was called “The obedient”.
    • “La Mancelle” built in 1878 had a front-mounted engine with the boiler positioned behind the passenger compartment.

      La Mancelle
    • In the same year he invented an independent front-wheel suspension system with upper and lower transverse leaf springs.
    • France: De Dion-Bouton was a car manufacturer that operated in France from 1883 to 1932.
    • The company was founded by Albert de Dion, Georges Bouton and his brother in law Charles Trépardoux.
    • By the end of 1883 the company had produced their first steam powered, rear wheeled steered car.
    • In the following year they produced an improved vehicle, which had front wheel steering and could seat four people.
    • In the mid 1890s their three-wheeled models were some of the first cars to be fitted with Michelin’s new pneumatic tires.

      De Dion-Bouton
    • France: Armand Peugeot produced a three-wheeled steam powered car in collaboration with Léon Serpollet (French) in 1889.
    • United States: Ransom Eli Olds built a steam powered three-wheeler in 1891. It is believed to be America’s first car.
    • France: Leon Serpollet designed and built an efficent flash boiler in 1896 that made steam a more practical source of power for cars.
    • He produced cars under the name Serpollet and Gardner-Serpollet from about 1899 until 1907.

      Leon Serpollet - Double Phaeton Type A - 1902

      Leon Serpollet, Double Phaeton Type A - 1902
    • In April 1902 Leon Serpollet became the first driver of a non-electrically powered car to hold the land speed record when he drove his steam powered “Oeuf de Pacques” (Easter Egg) car at 120.80 kph (75.06 mph).
    • United States: The “Stanley Steamer” was a steam powered car that was designed in 1897 by the twins Francis and Freelan Stanley.

      Stanley Steamer 

         Stanley Steamer - 1912
    • In 1906 a Stanley steam powered car called the “Stanley Rocket” driven by Fred Marriott set a world land speed record of 127.659 mph (205.447 kph).

      Stanley Rocket - 1906 & 1907
    • It is claimed that a Stanley boiler never exploded whilst a vehicle was in use.
    • United States: The Locomobile Company started producing steam powered cars in 1899.

      Locomobile 1901
    • These steam powered vehicles had flammable paraffin fires.
    • In 1902 the company started experimenting with petrol powered engines, ceasing production of steam vehicles shortly afterwards.

      Locomobile - 7 Passenger Touring Car - 1920

      Locomobile , 7 Passenger Touring Car - 1920
    • In 1922 the company was acquired by Durant Motors who used the “Locomobile” brand name until 1929.

3.4 Decline in Popularity of Steam Powered Cars

    • The introduction of electric starters in 1912 by Cadillac in their internal combustion cars is considered, by many, to be the reason for the decline in the popularity of steam powered cars.
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