The Steam Car: The Little Car that Could

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19th century steam car.
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In the dawn of the automobile era, many cars function off of steam engines.

This is a modest proposal. Some people will think it’s anything but modest, but people scare easily these days.

Take a point: Our atmosphere smells like Hell. Any minute we may all choke to death. And that isn’t a fantasy; it’s a fact, attested to by sober scientists. Add a codicil; under no circumstances will Americans give up their cars and roads, and return to rail travel … and don’t mention the sky, for good and sufficient reasons. They will not surrender their cars, ever; they’ll die first. And so will the remaining pedestrians.

Take another point: the steam automobile. For 30 years, steam cars ran faster, more cheaply, and more safely than gas-fueled cars. And they did not emit poison fumes. Then, they vanished, for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with engineering, ecological good, or cost. They were outsold, by vast amounts of money poured into advertising, by good old American salesmanship, which always works hardest when selling an inferior product. The gas car won.

Throughout the last few years, repeated attempts have been made to revive steam cars as a commercially sold vehicle. Every such attempt has suddenly, and often rather mysteriously, stopped, just short of actual production. Now, with the current yells of pain from gassed citizens, you keep hearing of a steam car … next year, maybe. But, somehow, not today.

Lear, who made huge promises, invested millions in development, and was, according to publicity, ready to actually produce a steam car, suddenly, and with no good reason, stopped dead in his tracks. Again, I won’t speculate about possible reasons; do your own paranoia trip.

Third point: groups and communes, popping up here and there, are looking for economically feasible ways to make it. Well, not all of us are farmers.

All right. A commune — 10, 20, or more people, a farmhouse, and a great big barn, and maybe none of them are farmers. Then look for machine tools, such as a good big lathe, a milling machine, some welding equipment, sheet metal tools, and access to one of those great mines of spare parts, the American auto junkyard.

All of these people are working, together; not the way men work on a Detroit auto line, but each at the craft he does best. In that big barn … building steam cars, one at a time, as cars were once built till the assembly line was invented. The frames and parts may be rebuilt junked gas cars, at least at first. The engine and boiler? Right now, anyone who wants can buy a steam power plant for an automobile, which he can bolt right into a standard American car, lobotomized of its poison-gas guts; the price, last I heard, ran around $1,200 for the works. Maybe our communards buy these engines, and maybe, after a while, they buy merely rough castings, boiler tube, and other raw parts.

But these people can, at a profit, produce steam cars. In the early days of the automobile, plants with only a few men in them made such cars, a few cars a week at most, of course. There won’t be enough of these cars made to worry Detroit much … not unless more people get the same idea.

But … these cars will travel at the same speeds, with greater safety, than gas cars. They will use kerosene, No. 2 oil, old candle ends or dead cats, but what they burn will not come out as poison gas, nor will the rapidly depleting fuel reserves of our planet be burned nearly as fast. They do not need shifts, nor do they need automatic transmissions. The Stanley had a total of 17 moving parts, and the Stanley still holds the stock model speed record for a run at Daytona beach in the early 1900s.

They will have drawbacks … but, please note, they won’t explode. And just incidentally, a gasoline car will, and often does, to the surprise of its driver … if he survives.

One drawback, for instance, would be a short time, up to three minutes, required to warm up to driving power from a totally cold engine. (Most Americans seem to believe that a gasoline engine does not need to be warmed before zooming off. They stay with this belief firmly, in spite of blue oil smoke clouds billowing from half-oiled and burned up engines.)

They need water from time to time … sometimes as often as every couple of hundred miles. Filling a tank with water is almost as time consuming, but not as expensive, as filling a tank with gasoline at 45 heavily taxed cents per gallon. Isn’t it?

But there’s one enormous drawback to a steam car … if you happen to be a garage mechanic, or a shop owner. They require only about a tenth as much repair work, most of it fairly simple; and they last, and last, and last. (There’s a beautiful steamer running around these parts, wearing a Packard body as a disguise. Under that 1940 tin beats the stout pulse of a 1915 Stanley.)

All right. There’s your commune, building a car or so a week; selling them at a price which is about the same as the price of a 1969-70 gas-buggy. Who’s buying?

Take a choice. A 1970 GM product, made of materials that you damned well know are inferior, if you know beans about engineering. Assembled by men who hate their jobs, who do not, literally, give a damn. Sold by hucksters who do not care if your car collapses under you, once the financing contract is signed. It will last, at best, five or six years. It will depreciate in value to half what you paid for it, the day you drive it out of the showroom. It will need constant repairs, expensive ones, and half the time you’ll be solidly skinned by the mechanic you take it to.

And, more, that monster will gulp gasoline, and convert it into cancer gas, at a steadily increasing price. It’ll hurt at both ends, as the man said when he ate the chili. But don’t worry — if the steering gear fails, or the automatic transmission suddenly kicks in when you didn’t expect it, it may kill you before it wears out. And for the same price, you might buy a car that needed no gearshift, that jackrabbited 0-60 in a time that would make a professional dragster blench, that rolled along at a good clip, using fuel that would set you back all of a couple of cents in 10 miles … and wouldn’t make smog.

That car could be assembled by craftsmen, who were part of a living family; who felt pride in their work, whose hands touched that machine with the thought and feeling that a good workman gives.

And maybe that one little family of people building cars might scare the hell out of the companies that slap together jalopies. Especially if more such families got the idea, and built cars, or generators, or tractors, or whatever there is to be built.

I wonder if anybody will do it. I keep hoping that somehow, someday, the people will take the great art of engineering back, away from the peddlers and medicine-show salesmen who own it today. I’ll bet it could be done.

You can put me down for a sedan, and paint it sunrise color.