Based in Le Mans, France, a town forever associated with motorsport, Amedee Bollee made bells for a living. However, for ten years from 1873 to 1883 he turned his attention to steam vehicles. One of them, L’Obeissante, could carry 12 passengers and it made the 140 mile journey from Le Mans to Paris in 18 hours.
Bollee’s most impressive creation was ‘La Rapide’. Specifically designed for speed, this car had independent suspension on all four wheels and could be operated by a single person. Designed for a top speed of 31mph, it actually reached 38mph on a rough dirt road. The ride was probably quite bouncy! La Rapide was fitted with a bell, as opposed to the whistle used on Grenville’s steam carriage . It took a while for car manufacturers to settle on the horn as the preferred warning device.
With the arrival of the twentieth century, steam car technology took some big steps forward. Boilers were heated by kerosene rather than coal. Suspension, steering, tires and bodywork were also radically improved.
The leaders of this new era were twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley. Their cars had a reputation for speed and power and were regular competitors in races. In 1906 a Stanley Steam Car set a new world land speed record of 127mph. This was not just a record for a steam car, but for any motorized vehicle. It was not broken by a gasoline powered car until 1910.
Stanley cars were not just novelties. The factory regularly produced several hundred cars per year. It was a drop in the ocean compared with Henry Ford’s output, but it was still serious manufacturing. The problem the Stanley brothers had was the cost of their cars. They were typically eight times the cost of Model-T Ford. Francis Stanley died in an accident in 1918 and soon after Freelan sold his shares. Without the twins to keep it moving forward the company went into a decline and it closed in 1924. This Doble as the top steam car company in the world.
Abner Doble had built his first steam car when he was still in high school. He then created some more prototypes with his three brothers, before they produced the Doble Detroit. This caused a sensation when it was exhibited in New York in 1917. Over 5,000 orders were placed and many deposits taken. The car was revolutionary. It had key ignition when most cars still had starting handles. This was combined with a powerful engine and simple controls.
However, the brothers just could not produce the car in these numbers. In reality less than 100 Doble Detroits were made. By 1924, the brothers had developed the Doble Model E. This could be ready to move off just forty seconds after turning the key and accelerate to 40mph in less than 13 seconds. The top speed was about 90mph. It was another impressive car. TV host Jay Leno owns one of the few remaining examples. He has said he is regularly amazed by the car’s smoothness and force of acceleration. But, once again, producing the cars in quantity was a problem. Only twenty-four were ever made.
The company’s downfall came when Abner became involved in the illegal sale of shares when he was desperate for cash. A long legal case followed, and although Abner was finally acquitted, Doble Steam Motors folded in 1931. The story of steam cars seemed to have come to an end.
For over seventy years steam cars seemed to be just a historical novelty; an engineering dead end. They had been ousted by the all-conquering internal combustion engine.
Then, in 2009, a group of slightly eccentric enthusiasts rolled into Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. The British Steam Car Challenge had arrived. Their car was called ‘Inspiration’ and their aim was to set a new world speed record for a steam car. They wanted to beat the speed set by the Stanley Steamer way back in 1906.
Inspiration had been in development for more than 10 years. It weighed 6,600 pounds and consumed 16 gallons of liquid petroleum gas and thirty gallons of water every time it made a three minute run. After weeks of problems the team finally achieved the necessary two fast runs. On 25th August 2009 an officially timed and sanctioned speed of 139.843mph was reached – a new world record.
The car then went straight to a museum and Inspiration will probably never run again. Unless there is a dramatic change in the direction of motor car development, it seems quite likely that the steam car speed record will stand for another 100 years.