By the 1860s many different inventors were working on steam cars. Railways powered by steam locomotives were well established, so making something smaller and lighter that could run on roads seemed to be the logical next step.
Henry Taylor, a watchmaker based in Quebec, produced a ‘Steam Pleasure Carriage’. This was demonstrated at Country Fairs. Taylor issued a challenge that he would race against any trotting horse, and his local newspaper described his buggy as ‘the neatest thing of the kind yet invented.’
After showing off his buggy for several years in this way, Mr. Taylor seems to have lost interest. One theory is that he had a crash, whilst another is that he realized his invention was not going to make him any money.
Whatever the reason, the Steam Pleasure Carriage was dismantled and stored in Henry Taylor’s attic. This was good news for Canada’s museums as the first automobile produced in the country survived and is now on display to the public.
The mid-nineteenth century was also a time when many new designs for bicycles or velocipedes were being produced. As steam engines became smaller, people worked on making a powered bicycle.
One of the first of these to actually work was made in France. An iron framed bicycle made by Pierre Michaux was fitted with a small steam engine manufactured by Louis-Guillame Perreaux. The exact date it was made is not known, only that it was sometime between 1867 and 1871. The Michaux-Perreaux Steam Velocipede has a claim to be the world’s first motorcycle. However this is disputed.
As far as some motoring historians are concerned, a motorcycle has to have an internal combustion engine – steam engines just do not count. In addition, on the other side of the Atlantic, another inventor had produced a very similar machine at about the same time.
Also sometime between 1867 and 1871, Sylvester Roper from Massachusetts produced a steam-powered velocipede. His machine is now part of the Smithsonian Museum’s collection and is the oldest self-propelled road vehicle they have. It is very unlikely that anyone will produce definitive evidence as to whether France or the USA had the first working steam motorcycle. So it is probably best to declare a dead heat.
Like Henry Taylor, Sylvester Roper took his steam vehicle to country fairs to demonstrate the new technology. He was also keen on setting speed records and that seems to have led to his downfall.
Roper took a later version of his velocipede to a cycle track in Boston on 1st June 1896. By this time he was 72 years old. The idea was to see if the machine could work as a pacemaker for bicycle races. He made a few demonstration laps and then showed how fast his invention could go. He covered a mile at an average of just under 30mph. Roper knew he could go faster; he had reached 40mph in the past. If he could do that in this formal setting it would be an official record.
The bike began to circle the track but halfway through the attempt Roper wobbled and then ran off the track, being thrown from the cycle. Roper was dead. Investigations revealed that he did not die as a result of the crash, but from a heart attack whilst riding. The adrenalin rush of the record attempt had killed him.
Meanwhile, over in England, a railway engineer called Robert Grenville had made his own steam carriage. It was a three wheeler and owed quite a lot to railway technology. The carriage is now at the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, England.
It still runs, and the museum thinks it is the oldest working self-propelled road vehicle in the world. However it does need a crew of three. One person steers, another looks after the boiler and the third controls the throttle and the brakes. It is fitted with a whistle to warn pedestrians. This is probably a good idea as it can hit a top speed of 20mph.
The steam carriage is not particularly fuel efficient though. It gets through six pounds of coal and five gallons of water for every mile it travels. That is quite a big carbon footprint.
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