Imagine my disappointment. I’d been reading about steam-powered cars for a couple of hours but I’d yet to actually see one in motion. Then, jackpot — a promotional film about steam cars from the early 1930s. When I finally laid eyes on a period steam car at full clip, I was gutted to find out it looked pretty much like any other car. No unwieldy, steam-spewing bohemoths, no tea kettles with tiny jockeys perched on the back. Just an ordinary car driving in a perfectly ordinary way. Until it came to a stop, and then — FWOOSH! I was rewarded with a victorious roar of steam firing from behind the front wheels.
I wish I were the right person to appreciate these cars. I don’t even have a license to drive the normal kind. I am an automobilistine with no appreciation for cars, engines, or mechanics whatsoever. And yet these machines elicit a certain kind of wonder, even from the terminally unmechanical like myself. If you ever track down an interview with a steam car owner, you can practically hear them gazing into the middle distance and wiping a solitary tear from the corner of their eye:
“With the throttle out a little, you could rock the car as gently as you would rock a cradle by putting it into forward and reverse alternately.
“It was tough, but so gentle.”
His voice had a trace of regret as he added: “It was wonderful.”1
The development of the steam car began in the late 1700s with the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-1800s people had invented practical steam-powered vehicles, but the automobile industry in England was abruptly hamstrung by the “red flag law”. Stage coach owners saw the writing on the wall with the invention of the automobile and took their case to Parliament. In 1831 Parliament passed a law that any automobile had to have a man walking in front of it waving a red flag. At night he had to carry a lantern. This ruined the English market for cars for the next 65 years because they were now too expensive to bother with.
Many hobbyists, however, built their own cars. This is where we get to the incomparable Mary Ward, who has the dubious honor of being the world’s first car accident fatality. In an article called “Mary through the looking glass” (but which should probably have been called “Mary through the windshield”) we are told that Ward was a Victorian lady scientist, a keen biologist and astronomer in a time when women were not admitted into universities. Ward’s cousins built themselves a homebrew steam car that put snails to shame at a breakneck seven miles per hour. Seven miles per hour turned out to be enough. During a jaunt in 1869, Ward was thrown from the car and immediately fell under one of the rear wheels. Ward was the first recorded fatal victim of a car accident.2
Steam cars were a fair challenge to petrol cars. Their speeds were comparable, if not faster than, the competing petrol engines. Steam cars eventually lost out because they were heavier and required more expertise to maintain. However they had a few advantages, such as being quieter and offering smoother control over the vehicle. Steam engines can produce a steady energy output, meaning you can start from a standstill or drive uphill at a snail’s pace. Petrol engines, on the other hand, require constant attention and regulation. The engine must be revved up before engaging a gear. Try to drive uphill slowly and you’ll stall the car.
The smooth, effortless starting of the steam car from a standstill is a marvel to anyone who watches it. The driver takes his place behind the wheel and the car begins moving forward without the slightest sound. The writer has often driven his car into a public garage and seen the garage man watch it moving into the stall he has indicated, without a sound coming from the car. Under these conditions, more than one has remarked, “Hey! You’re making too damn much noise.”4
Steam fanatics still recount the glory days with a twinge in their voice that betrays a flashback to a time outside of their own — the days when steam cars blustered down the street, hooting and wheezing and frightening the horses; when you had to wait up to ten minutes after starting the car for the water to boil; when you needed to rock the car back and forth to shake the condensation out of the cylinders. It’s almost enough to make me want to take up driving.
- “Ancient Steam Car“. The Northern Star 6 February 1932: 14. Print.
- Deer, Thomas S. The Modern Steam Car and Its Background. Los Angeles: Floyd Clymer, 1934. Print.
- Pain, Stephanie. “Mary through the looking glass”. New Scientist 186.2501 (2005): 48+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 January 2013.
- “Steam car is 90 m.p.h. job“. The Mail (Adelaide, South Australia) 21 October 1950: 6. Print.