The Rise and Fall of the Steam Car

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For many people, the history of the car begins with Henry Ford and his Model T. For others who have delved into the topic a bit more deeply, it begins with Karl Benz and his Motorwagen in 1886. Believe it or not, over a hundred years before Benz’s vehicle rolled down the road a French military engineer had developed a self-propelled vehicle capable of speeds of four miles an hour under its own power. This was Nicholas Cugnot’s fardier a vapeur, the first in a long line of steam cars that at one point directly competed with Ford’s Model Ts. 

1769 design of Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s self-propelled vehicle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While Cugnot’s slow-moving vehicle is a far cry from the modern automobile, it sparked the imaginations of inventors across the world. Steam power was just becoming feasible towards the end of the 18th century, and many were curious to see what possible applications the increasingly sophisticated steam engines could have. During the 1780s, various English engineers created their own models of a steam car, but none progressed far beyond the model stage. However, in 1801 Richard Trevithick would unveil the London Steam Carriage; this was the first steam road vehicle meant to transport people, as Cugnot’s had been intended for moving cannon to the battlefield. Trevithick’s carriage hit a top speed of around 9 miles per hour in early test runs, but an unfortunate crash and a lack of investment interest forced Trevithick to abandon the idea.

Steam carriage built by Richard Trevithick in 1803.
Trevithick steam carriage made in 1803. Credit: Popular Science Monthly Vol. 57 // Public Domain

Although Trevithick had backed away from steam cars, he was not the last inventor to experiment with them. Czech inventor Josef Bozek created the first steam car for personal use fourteen years later in 1815. Yes, that’s right. While the Battle of Waterloo was being fought, a man was driving himself around in a rudimentary car. Other individuals created their own steam cars, unable to find much business for much of the early 19th-century. One such inventory, Richard Dudgeon in the United States, created a vehicle capable of a two-minute mile in 1855.

Development of steam road vehicles was hindered, by hostile legislation. In Great Britain, for example, the Locomotives Act of 1861 capped the speed of steam cars at five miles per hour in the city and ten miles per hour in the country. Four years later, the act was amended to force steam car drivers to be accompanied by someone waving a red flag to warn of their approach. This made operating a steam car very unattractive. 

Opposition was not universal, however; steam cars had reached a level of more acceptance in France, which became the center of steam car development in the late-19th century. It was in France that the first large companies began to focus on steam cars. This included Peugeot; originally a bicycle company, Peugeot jumped into the business with a three-wheeled steam car in 1889 (before switching to gasoline models the next year). American companies followed suit, including the Stanley Motor Carriage Company (famous for its “Stanley Steamers”)  formed in 1902.

A red Stanley Steamer steam car from 1900 - 1906 on display at a museum.
A Stanley Steamer from 1900 – 1906 on display. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this point, steam car companies had to compete with internal combustion, gasoline-based car companies. Initially, steam cars held the advantage over gas; this was due in part to the fact that gas cars had to be hand-cranked to start. Steam engines were more convenient and more power-efficient, and the numbers reflect this. 909 new cars were registered in 1902, with over half of them being steam-powered. The next year, the Ford Motor Company was founded. 

Stanley Steamer 30 HP 12-passenger Mountain Wagon steam car.
Stanley Steamer 30 HP 12-passenger Mountain Wagon (1912–1914). Credit: Olaf Kosinsky // CC BY 3.0

With a focus on mass production, Ford’s Model Ts soon began to flood the market with relatively reliable and cheap gas motor cars. Steam car companies were unable to fully adapt to this industrial age approach to car manufacture. This, combined with the increasing efficiency of internal combustion engines, led to the decline of the steam car. Even as their market collapsed, the steam car managed to strike one last blow against the tide of gas cars; the land speed record for all motor vehicles was set in 1906 by a driver in a Stanley steam car, hitting 127 miles per hour. It took four years for a gas car to break that record.

Fred Marriott sitting in the Stanley Steam Carriage Co. steam car which set the land speed record in 1906.
Fred Marriott sitting in the Stanley Steam Carriage Co. steam car which set the land speed record in 1906. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The introduction of the electric starter in the 1920s ended any hope the steam cars had for a comeback, and by the 1930s, commercially manufactured steam cars were no longer readily available. Attempts to revive the steam car during the Oil Crisis in the 1970s failed to garner any mainstream interest. Today, the steam car remains more the domain of antique car collectors and history enthusiasts. The legacy of the steam car lives on, as it proved the viability of the automobile and changed the way we move forever.

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