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SNAPSHOT 78: The Ultimate Steam Car?

At the dawn of motoring, steam cars were quieter and faster than their smelly and noisy petrol-powered competitors.  But gradually the disadvantages of steam became more and more apparent – not least the time taken to start from cold, and the high consumption of fuel and water.

Léon Serpollet is credited with inventing and perfecting the flash boiler in the late 1800s, and his ‘Easter Egg’ broke the World Land Speed record in 1902.  But by 1906 sales of the Franco-American Gardner-Serpollet were falling.  The White company in the USA developed a steam car whose speed, ease of use and reliability made it the choice of a US president and the US Army – but by January 1911 White had made its last steam car.  The Stanley company continued to make its Stanley Steamers until 1924, but the fuel efficiency, power delivery and lower cost of gasoline-powered vehicles, and the invention of the electric starter for internal-combustion cars, sounded the eventual death-knell of the steam car, leaving steam-powered commercial and agricultural vehicles the main bastion of steam power on the roads.

Except…   Abner Doble was a remarkable engineer and inventor.  In 1911, with his brother Warren, he started a lengthy process of developing the ultimate steam car – one that would compare with the finest internal-combustion vehicles in speed, ease of use and above all virtually instant starting.

After many disappointments and only limited production (Abner Doble was the archetypal ‘tinkering engineer’ who could never really finalise a design), the Model E of 1922 finally began to achieve the aims of its inventor.  The most important feature was a monotube boiler with an electrically controlled forced-draught burner at the top and feedwater entry at the bottom, and excellent insulation to achieve maximum heat transfer.  This counterflow principle allowed the hottest gases at the top to superheat the steam.  It also enabled start-up from cold in no more than about 30 seconds.

In period, some very important individuals were impressed by the Doble, not least of which was Howard Hughes, who owned at least one.

Sadly, very few Dobles were made.  The Model E is the most prolific survivor, and the advanced technology of the Doble still appeals to those in the know: Jay Leno is an enthusiastic owner of two examples.

This snapshot gives a relatively rare glimpse under the ‘hood’ of a Doble.  The reverse of the photograph has the simple question: ‘Year?’  Despite the fact that very little has been written about these fascinating and extraordinary cars, the most detailed history, by J N Walton, yields a precise answer.  The rakish downward sweep of the coachwork behind the scuttle matches a picture of the same car shown in the book. It is Doble E-19 of 1925. Originally built as a ‘town car’, it was re-bodied  with boat-tail coachwork.

Doble continued to experiment, fitting his uniquely effective steam generator to cars, buses, lorries and railcars.  He died in 1961, never having abandoned his conviction that a properly-designed steam vehicle was the equal of any driven by internal combustion.

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