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What happened to steam power?

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I was reading the article about the 1925 Doble in the January 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car and found myself asking what happened. I have had a long fascination with steam powered cars and was a bit familiar with the Doble but this article really lit my fuse.

I began some on line research and found an article by Jay Leno, owner of a Doble, and an interesting British website. I added links to both on my my blog, www.route66chronicles.blogspot.com.

The British site is filled with specs on early American steam cars, photos of races, and a great section on modern innovators and their shade tree creations. Though it was refreshing to see folks with the pioneering spirit it was a bit odd to see a Hupmobile, a 1966 Chevy, a bicycle, a moped and other devises outfitted with steam engines.

There was also some great info on the Doble. There was even an original film, about 1930, that showed a Doble climbing a 35% grade!

As to the Doble, was it really that fast and that powerful? Why wasn't this technology applied to trucks?

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Yes the Doble was that fast and powerful. It is easy to put a powerful engine in a steamer, hard to make a boiler that will keep up. Apparently Doble accomplished this feat.

In the 30s Doble went to Germany and made some buses and trucks on an experimental basis. The Germans were trying to get around the problem of imported oil. This was just a few years before WW2.

There were lots of steam powered trucks made in England. They continued in use there into the 30s. Mainly due to certain tax advantages, and the savings on using untaxed fuel (coal).

I did a considerable amount of research on steam cars some years ago. I came to the conclusion that they never stood a chance.

As recently as 1910 or so they had some definite advantages over gas cars. But improved gas engines, the self starter, and finally the automatic transmission wiped out any advantage they might have had.

Still and all if the gas engine had never been invented we would have had some very impressive steam cars. The potential was there, as Doble and others demonstrated.

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The problem with steam cars is energy efficiency. You just have to think back to your basic secondary school physics. If your heat source is very very cheap, the inefficiency matters much less. The specific heat of water is 1 calorie requierd to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water each degree between ambient, (say 20 centigrade) and boiling point. That is 80 cal per gram. Then to convert water at 100 to steam at 100 requires 540 calories per gram. (That is the Latent Heat of Vapoursation). Then each gram of steam requires just half a calorie to raise the temperature one degree. So if your target steam temperature is 500 centigrade, for example, then it absorbs a further 200 calories, which is about the maximum theoretically you might recover in useful work by expansion in the cylinder out of the 820 you have put into it. That is not even 25% thermal efficiency before you have to contend with friction losses, distortion of the tyres as they roll along the road, and radiation losses and whatever else. no matter what liquid or gas you choose as convenient fuel, there is always an alternative demand for which it is more valuable. You have to be very smart to get around problems like that in basic physics.

I would love to have a Doble, a White, or a big early Stanley. They are most impressive in their operation, but there are not enough to go around. In 1972 Brian Rankine told me that when around 1970 he had his Doble in an international rally there in New Zealand, he may not have had the speedo working. He told me the police pulled him up one day on a rat-run back to their accomodation and verballed him about the speed, saying that if it wasn't him it was the T 35 Bugatti they were checking at up between 80 to 90 mph.

Regards, Ivan

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Or to put it in layman's terms steam cars get lousy mileage.

They are also heavy and expensive.

Steam proponents countered the mileage complaint by pointing out that steam cars burn cheap kerosene or fuel oil not expensive gas which tends to level out the fuel cost.

After studying up on every steam car I could get information on, I came to the conclusion that the Stanley was the best. Even though it was a primitive design, it was practical and worked well. Other designers tried seemingly more advanced designs but what they gained was more than offset by the additional complexity, weight and expense.

The Brooks steamer made in Canada in 1926 was probably the last and best development of the basic Stanley type.

The power of a steam engine is practically unlimited because the power does not come from the engine. The boiler is the limiting factor and here is where the designer must weigh the benefits of more power at the expense of more weight, and more fuel consumption.

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The article referred to in Hemmings profiled the 1925 model Doble. The specs quoted that really grabbed me were Howard Hughes driving the profiled car at more than 130 miles per hour, that this car was driven more than 600,000 miles without an overhaul, that the 0 - 75 mile per hour speed was 5 seconds, that the engine turned less than 1,000 rpm at 75 miles per hour, and generated 1,000 ft. lbs of torque.

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When we first started in the hobby in 1969 or so there was a museum, "Hershey's" along old Route 22 North of Lancaster. I'm sure some of you remember the place. The building, actually a large barn, still stands. Outside, among various parts cars and derelict antiques was a late 40's-early '50s Cadillac that someone had converted to steam. Anyone remember that car? Always wondered about its history and ultimate fate.

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Doble also came to New Zealand to develop a Steam Bus for Auckland City Council in 1930 The Bus was an AEC and he bought with him a E24 Doble car which may be one in the Southward Museum in Paraparaumu Wellington Region New Zealand but I belive there is another Doble in the Country since

Magazine References

in Discovered section information

May 1985 Throughbred & Classic Cars (GB) Page 89 Vol 12 #8 gives history whereabouts of engine

Letter from Doble Reseacher in the US in 1992

See Feb-March 1992 Beaded Wheels (NZ) Page 30 No 194 - written by Stan Lucas of Lucas Automotive Engineering Inc California USA

There even a US company that worked with Ford and Fitted a Steam engine in late 60s Ford Mustang I Think Williams were company involved

Note the Aussies also worked on Steam Cars

Prichard was very close to developing a production car at once stage see Sept 1977 Wheels Page 62-65 Volume 46 #10

Cheers Julian from New Zealand

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Doble was actually working on a steam engine as late as the late 1950s. The car he was developing was in the Brooks Stevens museum and was a cover car for Motor Trend (I think it was). Several hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the engine was never installed in the car.

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Interesting thread....

I have a couple of friends with Stanleys & White steamers. They are a tinkerers car as they take almost constant tinkering to keep them in good running shape.

Other interesting facts are that they can go just as fast in reverse as they can go forward; they have no transmission; and some later models had condensers so they got better than one mile per gallon of water.

The Doble was known for quick warm ups because it used a flash boiler that was ahead of it's time. I recall that Doble went out of business because the cars were built better than required and were sold for too little.

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