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September 1997

Image of Locomobile
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Locomobile Steam Runabout designed by the Stanley brothers.
Date: 1899    Id: #86.141

Steaming to Nowhere

This spidery little automobile seems almost too light to bear the weight of its name--Locomobile. That name conjures up visions of smoke belching steam railroad engines, not dainty horseless carriages with bicycle wheels. But the name was well chosen, for the diminutive vehicle is powered by steam.

The Locomobile was actually designed by the Stanley twins, Francis E. and Freelan O. who went on to make the most famous steam powered car of all, the Stanley Steamer. The brothers built a steam carriage in 1898 that attracted so much attention that they decided to go into business. Production had hardly gotten underway in 1899 when the Stanleys were made an offer they couldn't refuse. Wealthy publisher John Brisben Walker, with backing from Amzi Lorenzo Barber, who had made a fortune in asphalt paving, offered to buy the Stanleys out for $250,000. Having only $20,000 invested in the project, they sold, using their $230,000 profit to finance their re-entry into the car business in 1901. Walker and Barber soon quarreled and split into two companies, Mobile (Walker) and Locomobile (Barber) each making a virtual copy of the steamer designed by the Stanleys, who served for a while as consultants to both companies!

Rear View of LocomobileJust what kind of car was it that caused this flurry of financial maneuvering? Alas, it was not a very good one. It may not have been too light to bear the weight of its name, but it was too light to bear up under the strain of abysmal turn-of-the century roads. The Locomobile had much in common with bicycles. Its frame of brazed steel tubing, its spoked wheels and ball-bearing hubs, its chain-and-sprocket drive all were derived from bicycle practice. Its powerful two-cylinder steam engine could also propel it along at a 20 mile-per-hour clip. The resulting pounding caused joints to fracture, sprockets to wear, and bearings to fail. In addition it consumed water at a prodigious rate. With no condenser, steam from the boiler went through the engine once and simply exhausted to the air. The Locomobile was good for only about 20 miles on a tank of water.

Had the little steamers been used primarily on relatively smooth city streets, where water and fuel could be easily obtained, all might have been well. The Stanleys seem to have originally believed that this is how most customers would use their cars. When one of their very first buyers complained that the fuel capacity was too small, Freelan O. replied "But my dear Sir, three gallons will take you thirty miles, and that is all you will ever want to drive in one day." He was wrong, of course. The speed and freedom offered by even so problematic a car as the Locomobile made people want to travel much more than thirty miles in one day.

Despite their short comings, Locomobiles stacked up reasonably well against the electric and gasoline powered automobiles of their day. They were fast, they needed no complicated transmission like cars powered by internal combustion engines, and water and gasoline were easier to obtain than the electricity needed to re-charge the batteries of an electric car. Their $600 price made them as cheap as any horseless carriage on the market.

Demand was high enough to make Locomobile the best selling car in America in 1901. They were even sold in England, where writer Rudyard Kipling purchased a four-seater version. But reliability was still a problem, as Kipling ruefully noted: "As to the Locomobile herself she is at present a Holy Terror... I suppose she will settle down some day to her conception of duty but just now her record is one of eternal and continuous breakdown... It is quite true she is noiseless but so is a corpse... Her lines are lovely; her form is elegant; the curves of her buggy top are alone worth the price of admission, but as a means of propulsion, she is a nickel-plated fraud. . ."

The Locomobile company was fully aware of the problems with its cars, and intended to do something about them: build cars powered by internal combustion engines. In 1902 it hired Andrew L. Riker, a man who had built electric cars and was aware of their limitations as well. He designed the first internal combustion powered Locomobile, which appeared in 1903. A line of steam cars hung on through 1904, but after that, Locomobiles, despite their name, would be driven by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines.

The steam car did not die with the demise of the Locomobile steamers of course. The Stanleys hung on until the late 1920s. In the late 1960s Bill Lear, who made his name building the Lear jet aircraft, tried to build steam autos and buses, but was not successful.

Did the steam car have to die? In the long run, probably yes. The steam engine suffered from an inherent disadvantage: lower thermal efficiency than internal combustion engines. That is an engineer's way of saying that a steam engine requires more fuel than an internal combustion engine of the same power. So the steam car had to carry more fuel, which weighed more, and required even more power to push along. Or it could carry the same amount of fuel, and have to refuel more often. Of course, steamers had to carry water as well, which meant even more weight, to say nothing of the need to replenish water as well as fuel. Condensers allowed steam cars to re-use the same water, but condensers added weight, which required more fuel. Higher steam pressures made the engines more efficient, but higher pressures meant more danger of leaks.

Finally, there was the convenience factor. Starting the little Locomobile required some 20 separate steps and could easily take 25 minutes. Owners often noted that if they tried to hurry, it took even longer. Compared to this, even the rituals involved in hand cranking an internal combustion engine seemed preferable. The advent of electric starters gave internal combustion engines an insurmountable advantage. It is true that steamers were eventually made more automatic and the starting procedures were simplified. Experimental steam cars have been produced that are ready to run within forty seconds of turning the key. However, reflect for a moment on the frustration of waiting for a computer to boot, and you will see that even this would be too slow for today's fast-paced world.

Today very few people have seen steam cars run. They appear occasionally at old car shows, where people are astonished at how quiet they are (they don't sound like locomotives) and at the fact that they can be driven as fast backward as they can forward.

One of the best such car shows is Greenfield Village's Annual Old Car Festival. There was one Locomobile runabout like this one at last year's event, and its owner demonstrated the joys and frustrations of steam powered motoring.


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