Monday, May 11, 2009

Doble Steam-Powered, the Greatest External Combustion Car Ever, Plus Random Steam Power Musings...by Larry Tebo

I really love steam-power. My dad got me turned onto it when I was a kid and he took me to lots of the "Threshermen's Shows" that are popular in the Midwest farming country, where steam-powered tractors, grain threshers, and other machinery is shown and demonstrated. There's hardly anything more awesome to me than the sight of a huge steam-powered locomotive flying down the railroad tracks with its smokestack churning out great clouds of smoke, and its steam exhaust shooting out from the sides of its drive-engines; the huge drive-wheels being spun by the immense power of steam.

Steam power, also more formally identified as "External Combustion Power", was not limited to just farm implements and locomotives, though. Abner Doble was an American who was a true genius, and he's largely forgotten today, which is a terrible shame, because not only did he truly innovate in the engineering sense, but he started a car company that built the greatest steam-powered automobiles ever built, and surely the most beautiful. Automobile Quarterly published a great article on the Doble story years ago, and that's what gave me the idea to write this tribute to not only Abner Doble, but also to the greatness that was steam power in the field of transportation.

This is an example of the rare and beautiful Doble Steam Automobile. It is a 1925 model:

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An interesting opener/teaser factoid about Doble's cars is that they could be driven away under their own power in one minute or less, even when the ambient temperature was below freezing! A British publication conducted a controlled test to confirm this in the 1920s, and the results amazed everyone. One of the greatest drawbacks to steam engines in cars is that they ordinarily take a long time to reach their operating steam-pressure, so one must plan ahead when driving the things. Abner Doble's patented system conquered this, along with his closed-condenser system of water recycling, which resulted in much longer range between water fillups, through the condensation and re-use of water instead of exhausting it as waste-steam. He was a VERY clever fellow.

The ideal fuel requirement of the Doble was for kerosene, I believe, but, as Doble owner Jay Leno likes to point out, these automobiles are capable of burning nearly any aromatic fossil fuel. Again, Doble trumped the other, more famous steam-car makers, the Stanley Brothers in particular, by devising a one-fuel system for his machines. Stanley automobiles and others required dual-fuel; both kerosene, for a "pilot light" affair, and gasoline for the actual burner that produced steam. When a 16-year-old Abner Doble (he was already a student at MIT, btw) drove his improved steam-powered automobile to the Stanley Brothers' factory, and showed the Stanley Brothers his system (the brothers were twins, who went by their initials, F.E. and F.O.), they dismissed it out-of-hand. The brothers, although brilliant themselves, were of the N.I.H. school of thought ("Not Invented Here").


Doble was an advocate of "double-acting" steam engines, in which each piston does work in both reciprocating directions. Steam pressure is admitted at the top of the piston, and at the bottom of that power-stroke, steam pressure is then admitted to the opposite side of the piston, so that it is "pulling AND pushing" the piston rod. This greatly increased power output, torque, and even the smoothness of the engine.

Two illustrations of a Doble double-acting steam engine and powertrain. Note the electrical generator drive, which is taken off the differential:

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I was once lucky enough to have been given a brief ride in a Stanley automobile, and it was a 1921 touring car. The silence is eerie as one moves away. They make electric cars seem noisy. Plus, I remember the feeling of humungous torque in that old girl, like she could have been hitched up to half-a-dozen boxcars and just pulled them like...well...like a train.

Period advertisement for a Stanley Steamer similar to the car I rode in:

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It is important to remember that, actually, steam power, when applied in reciprocating motion as in the Doble and Stanley cars, is comparable to electric power, in that full power and torque is available from zero rpm. There is no "idle" speed for these powerplants. They're stationary until called upon to move the vehicle. Thusly, the only noise one hears when at rest in these cars is the occasional sound of the burner firing to replace lost steam pressure. Otherwise, blessed silence.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in these things find your local steam-power exhibition this summer and GO! These shows are full of farmers and old-codgers, but they're the ones who still understand these forms of power, and are able to operate these engines and demonstrate them for younger people (even me!) like us. I guarantee you'll be hooked after you see them in operation. Steam power is almost like a kind of "organic" motive power for vehicles; much moreso than internal combustion engines ever will be. The Threshermen's shows are always lots of fun for "gearheads", and you'll probably discover many things about engines and engineering that you never knew existed. Plus, if there was ever a more friendly and eager-to-inform-and-enthuse group of people than steam-enthusiasts, I have yet to meet them. Those farmers and "codgers" will be delighted to answer any and all of your questions, and in exchange you will get to know some of the nicest, most salt-of-the-earth people on planet Earth. These shows are a lot of fun, filled with friendly (no "attitude") people, and a nice bit of respite from today's high-tech tornado we all live in. Just Google "threshermen" and find one close to you. There might even be a Stanley Steamer at the show near you! Summer is nigh, and the steamers are firing up.

This is a fairly typical steam tractor of long ago. Seeing a picture of one is not enough; you must SEE and HEAR and SMELL these things under power. They're amazing.

Old photograph showing similar Threshing Engine at work in a Midwestern farm field, circa WWI-era:

This is a photograph of a 1925 Model E Doble roadster:

My guess is that this maroon roadster is a Murphy creation. The Murphy coachworks were in Los Angeles, and were world famous for its surpassingly excellent and beautiful coachwork on all of the world's most expensive and exclusive marquees of the Classic Era. It just seems to have that "Murphy look". Also, look closely at that particular car, and remember the year it was built. If that is the original bodywork (sometimes these cars were rebodied after several years in order to keep them fashionable by their wealthy owners), then it is quite a piece of "predictive" design work. The crowned fenders, for example, did not become fashionable until the later twenties, as well as the non-drum-shaped headlamps. Drum-shaped headlamps were THE fashion on expensive automobiles from about 1920 until perhaps 1927 or so. In fact, this Doble from 1925 looks strikingly similar to a Rolls Royce Phantom III from the early-mid thirties in many ways. I actually suspect this is a rebodied car for that reason. Nevertheless, it's very attractive. Notice how Doble was able, as was Franklin with their air-cooled powerplants, to effectively conceal their non-conformism with designs that made them look, for all the world, just as conventional as any other gasoline-powered, liquid-cooled IC-engined automobile of the time. Very challenging, and they succeeded, IMO

1925 Doble Model E. It's nearly impossible to tell that this is not an internal-combustion automobile with a conventional radiator. The "radiator" is actually Doble's condenser system for recovering waste-steam and condensing it back into recyclable boiler water. The Stanley automobiles were "total loss" steamers, and exhausted all waste steam to the atmosphere. They thusly left big clouds of steam behind them wherever they went. A Doble left minimal steam in its wake, and also needed far fewer water tank refills. The "normal" appearance of a Doble can be seen in this photograph of Jay Leno's Doble sedan:Another distinguished, and very convention looking, Doble

It is a commonly asked question about Stanley Steam automobiles as to whether they are a "fire hazard", largely due to the Stanley's characteristic open-flame burner, which is much like an outdoor barbecue's gas flame burner. The Stanley may have been a fire risk at times, but one thing an owner of a Stanley Steamer didn't have to worry about was a boiler explosion. I read somewhere that there has never been one single recorded instance of a Stanley automobile's boiler exploding. Why is this important? Because back then, the public was accustomed to picking up newspapers and reading about the latest railroad steam locomotive's catastrophic boiler explosion that maimed and killed people by the score, or worse. It was not an uncommon occurrence in the era of steam railroad power. So when trying to convince a prospective buyer of one of your steam-powered automobiles that they're not taking home a disaster-in-waiting, the Stanley brothers went completely over-the-top in taking precautions against such an occurrence with their cars. What they did at Stanley was to wind multiple layers of high-tensile piano wire around the boiler, thus girding it in a very effective kind of "containment vessel" that enabled the Stanley boiler to withstand extremely high over-pressurization if the control valves were to fail, or if the owner was neglectful of the gauges. It was VERY reassuring for customers, apparently, and was a strong selling point for Stanleys.

This is a "Frequently Asked Questions" piece that was found on the internet, and I'm reprinting it here for the readers. It is very informative:

Steam Power FAQ

1. Steam cars run on water.

No. - Steam engines are (external combustion, Rankin cycle) heat engines. Water is the working fluid. They convert heat into mechanical work. The internal combustion Otto cycle engine in your car does the same. Both the internal and external combustion engines burn fuel producing heat. The heat of that combustion raises the temperature of a working fluid in a confined space producing an increase in pressure. This pressure exerts force against a piston in the engine. The piston moves turning the crank, turning the wheels moving your car along.

2. Steam cars are likely to explode.

No. - They are less likely to explode as they use less volatile fuels. Modern steam generators for automotive use are constructed in such a way that in case of a rupture they have very little water at the saturation point, preventing an explosion. The Stanley boiler, a vertical fire tube design unlike modern generators have large amounts of water at saturation temperature, was tested at the factory by forced failure. The failure occurred in the fire tube expansion joints which acted as a safely valve, safely releasing the pressure preventing an explosion. Fred Marriott set a world speed record of 127.66 mph in 1906 in a specially built Stanley. In the following year he crashed while trying to improve on his record. It was estimated that he was traveling at 180 mph at the time of the crash. The boiler did not explode!! And Fred luckily lived to tell the tail.

3. Steam is outdated and old fashioned.

No. - Most of our electricity today comes from steam engines. In atomic power plants, steam is generated by the reactor and drives a steam engine.

4. The internal combustion engine is used today because it is more efficient.

No. - At the start of automotive development the steam engine had the advantage. It was more powerful and easier to operate as it had no transmission or clutch. Then the electric starter was invented. The internal combustion engine was now a 'get in and go machine'. Steam cars of the time needed a lot of preparation that required about 30 minutes or more before they could be driven. On condensing models lubricating oil mixed with the water which then had to be changed every other day or so. Very messy. Water also would get into the crank case of the engine requiring monthly oil changes. Both types of automobiles at the time where obtaining 8 to 13 miles per gallon of fuel. And the steam car used less expensive fuel oil or kerosene. Today modern steam power generating plants obtain 40% to 60% efficiency. The I.C. automobile engine only gets 25% efficiency.

5. Steam automobiles can use a variety of fuels.

Yes. - Steam is generated in a boiler separate from the engine. The combustion chamber in the boiler can be designed to accommodate any combustible substance. The fuel is burned clean producing no more pollution then a household gas heater. In an automobile the fuel would have to be restricted to one that can be transported and fed automatically. Liquid fuels are the best choice as propane or natural gas are stored under pressure and are vented in case of over pressure creating a danger of explosion. A Stanley, whose pilot had been converted to use propane exploded when vented gas from a spare propane tank carried under the passenger seat ignited killing the driver and injuring the passengers. Possible liquid fuels are kerosene, fuel oil, diesel fuel, and soybean distillate fuel. A properly designed burner system could burn a variety of fuels by using an oxygen sensor in the exhaust to control the proper fuel air mixture.

6. Steam cars of the past outperform I.C. cars.

Yes. - The Doble cars produced between 1923 and 1930 weighing over 4000 lb. could accelerate from 0 to 75 mph in under 5 seconds, and could maintain a top speed of over 95 mph. The early Stanley's produced so much torque that they lifted the front wheels off the ground when the throttle was opened too quickly.

7. Steam cars are unreliable and require a lot of maintenance.

No. - A Doble E14 produced in 1923 was driven over 600,000 miles requiring only normal maintenance. The Doble cars required no more maintenance then their internal combustion counter parts. Other Doble's are known to have traveled over 200,000 miles having only routine oil and tire changes.

8. The Doble Steam Motor Company failed because of engineering design problems.

No. - The company failed because of lack of funding. This is a sad story for the steam car company that could have been. The lack of funding was brought about by one Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty, the Commissioner of Corporations in Los Angeles California. Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty refused to issue the permit necessary for the sail of additional stock until 50 cars had been produced and had given satisfactory service in the hands of owners for six months. This was all very peculiar as Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty had received the independent report concerning the excellence of the car under test. Also the Cooperate Securities Act designed to prevent fraud in the sail of stock provided that if the Commissioner (Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty) upon examination of the application finds, that the proposed plan of business of the applicant is not unfair, unjust or inequitable, that it intends to fairly and honestly transact business, that the Commissioner (Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty) shall issue to the applicant a permit. It was reported that Mr. Edwin M. Daugherty repeatedly stated that he did not question the integrity of the officers of the company, and at one time gave them a letter as follows: Pursuant to your inquiry regarding the Doble Steam Motors Corporation, beg to advise that there is nothing in our files or that has come to my attention, personally, which reflects upon the integrity of the promoters of the Doble Steam Car or the Company.

Every person who really loves automobiles, and I'm talking about not just the driving of them but the machinery and the "means to the end" part of automobiling, needs to experience the visceral thrill of being in the presence of a steam-powered vehicle of some kind, IMO. They seem almost supernatural in some ways, as if they're filled with a kind of life force, especially steam locomotives and the huge steam tractors I talked about earlier. The way they snort and grunt, and shoot their "breath" while working, coupled with the eerie silence of their power delivery makes them so fascinating for any "motorhead". Once they get into your consciousness, it's almost impossible to ignore the mechanical pleasures they hold out to the receptive mind.

Everyone has a memory of something that happened to them when they were very, very young; so young that few other events of the time are remembered, so that this event must have been particularly happy/sad/shocking/etc in order to be remembered. I was about five years old, which would make it 1958, and my grandmother's house was directly adjacent to the tracks of the New York Central line that ran north-south through NW Indiana. One day I was sitting on a porchswing by myself (this was out in the country, and a very quiet day), when, in the distance, I remember seeing HUGE clouds of grey smoke rising from a train that was approaching. As it got closer, I remember getting REALLY scared, because this train wasn't like the others that went past all day (diesels were the norm by the late-fifties). The train got closer, and I swear to God, the ground and the house SHOOK like I don't ever recall before or since. This train was composed of nothing but big, dingy grey and tan steam locomotives and their tenders, hooked nose-to-tail, perhaps ten or fifteen of them, and all of them the BIG kind, like maybe 4-8-4 or more (4 front guide wheels, 8 big drive wheels, and four trailing wheels). I seem to remember that they were all under power and driving together, and the NOISE and the SMOKE were overwhelming and REALLY frightening for a five-year-old boy who had never before seen anything like this. It scared the hell out of me! I ran to the tracks after they passed, and I still remember seeing them receding into the distance, all smoke and ghostly grey. The rumble and noise lasted long after they receded from view. I played with Lionel electric trains as a boy, and those locomotives looked like humungous, real-life versions of my favorite toys, of which I'd never seen a real one heretofore. It was a thrill I've never forgotten.

This is exactly the way I remember seeing those ghostly locomotives fifty years ago:


My dad explained to me several years later that those locomotives were on their way to be scrapped at the steel mills up north in Indiana Harbor (he was a steelworker there at the time). Today, I think of that moment often, and it makes me almost cry in sadness for the thought of witnessing the literal swansong of the great American steam locomotive. It was sort of like seeing big, majestic elephants marching to their doom. It still makes me feel sad.

This brings things back to Abner Doble. Since he was a young and well-educated man in the early 20th century (born in 1895 and graduated an engineer from M.I.T. before age 20), he was very aware of the latest developments in metallurgy, and took advantage of these new materials and techniques with a flourish. This is what helped him to outsmart the Stanley twins (F.E. and F.O. Stanley were identical twin brothers) and "build a better mousetrap" with his improved steam-engines mounted on much more modern chassis in his Doble cars. Doble was perhaps as committed to, if not even MORE committed to quality than even the Rolls/Royce partners in England, or Henry Leland in America (founder of Cadillac and Lincoln and famed worldwide as the "Master of Precision"). Doble's automobiles were world-renowned for their supreme quality of design and construction, and this is perhaps what helped to drive Doble out of the car business by the early thirties. He had very little business-sense, and nefarious stock-dealings done by others in the corporation without his knowledge put the final nail in the Doble automaking era, with only about 125 magnificent machines ultimately built. Here is another photograph of a beautiful 1925 Doble Model E roadster:

It's also revealing to discover who drove Doble automobiles. One person who publicly stated that the best car in the world was a Doble was none other than mega-millionaire businessman Howard Hughes, who swore by the cars; they were his favorite marquee. Many of Hollywood's biggest stars drove Dobles, as did quite a few of Europe's wealthiest and most visible elites. That's one reason why so many of the Doble automobiles built still survive today; they were owned by notable people, and have been preserved accordingly.

This is a modern-day photograph of Howard Hughes' Doble automobile:

Some people assert that Doble automobiles were the "original hybrids". This is not really true. Here is the original hybrid in fact. The Lohner-Porsche was propelled by electric hub-motors (front-drive too...ironic considering the Porsche-origin!) that were supplied with current generated by a conventional IC gasoline engine. Dr. Porsche patented his "Mixte" system of gas/electric propulsion, and the Lohner Company put it to use in its products. This was the machine that made Ferdinand Porsche famous. His hybrid predated the current eras by nearly a century. Photograph of a Lohner-Porsche powered by Porsche "Mixte" hybrid drive:

I've never read the details regarding Dr. Porsche's conception of his idea, but considering the erratic and difficult-to-modulate nature of IC engines in the primitive stage that they were in at this time (turn of the 20th Century), it probably was perfectly natural for Dr. Porsche to devise a way to use the IC engine without the encumbrance of having to modulate the throttle/engine rpm, and just run the engine as a constant-speed generator powerplant. Carburetors, for example, in the early days were often little more than metal-mesh screens suspended in the intake airstream that had gasoline dripping onto them. The surface tension of the fuel on the screen held the fuel in suspension, and the rush of air over the screen simply atomized and pulled the fuel into the intake charge. Just like you or me sipping a hot cup of tea or coffee. This was not an efficient, nor an easily controlled way of metering fuel to the cylinders at all. The invention of the float-bowl/venture carburetor early in the century greatly advanced the cause of the IC engine; perhaps nearly as much as the later invention of the electric self-starter.

The December, 2007 issue of Hemmings Classic Car magazine has a terrific article on a 1925 E-Series Doble roadster that is owned today by the J.B. Nethercutt Museum in California. EVERY Doble is special (only 41 E-Series cars were ever manufactured from '24 to the company's end in 1932), but this particular car is REALLY special, since it is the Doble that Howard Hughes owned. (See photo above) It is an awesome automobile (the steering wheel on these Dobles was constructed with a rim made from Ebony, with hub and spokes in German silver, just as an example of their extremely high quality), and I recommend this magazine article to anyone interested in the Doble. They even have great photos of a companion bare chassis Doble, and go into some detail about the technical and operating aspects of these magnificent automobiles.


Bare chassis of Doble at the Nethercutt Museum in California:

Two eye-popping factoids...the E-Series Dobles have been timed at 0-75mph in five seconds, and the engine in these cars produces (are you ready?) 1,000 lb/ft of torque from ZERO rpm! This is a 5,000-pound automobile from EIGHTY years ago!!! It is actually very easy to literally tear the tires off their rims with these cars if the throttle is not used carefully. They must make even a mighty Duesenberg Model SJ look sedate!

An interesting thing about the Stanley cars compared with Dobles is the Doble's comparative simplicity of operation, not to mention the technological prowess of the Doble versus the Stanleys. Abner Doble, while a student at MIT in 1914, in fact, visited the Stanley Brothers in Massachusetts with his proposal for the flash-boiler/condenser system that he eventually patented for use in his cars. The Stanley brothers, then on top of the hill in steam cars, rejected his ideas, to their detriment. The latter-day Dobles, like these E-series cars, are quick-starting and relatively easy to master (steam-pressure at ready-stage in 90 seconds from cold-start, automatic regulation of boiler pressure, etc), while a typical Stanley steam car required much dedication from its owner in terms of both time (long startup time; as much as 30 minutes or more before ready to drive away), as well as in investing much time and effort in the mastery of the technical and operative aspects of a Stanley. Stanleys were "old school" steam cars and had much in common with the locomotives of the time. Doble advanced the game substantially, but at a cost. Abner Doble made steam power in an automobile "modern", and a basically practicable proposition, for far more motorists than Stanley ever gave consideration to.

I have to take a moment to thank my late dad for "priming the pump" of my love of steam-powered machines. He was a farmer for many years before moving to the city, and when he was growing up in the thirties and forties, he worked every summer around steam-powered tractors and threshing machines at harvest time. In later years, he invited me to go with him to various steam-power festivals in Indiana and Illinois (they're very popular and I recommend them to anyone here; see earlier comments). At these festivals, which are nothing more than a joyful celebration of American work-ethic and technical/inventive genius via steam-powered farm machinery, they have "live" demonstrations of the huge and powerful steam tractors, which, with HUGE leather belts driving equally HUGE pulleys, power the threshers which separate grain from chaff, etc., along with many other fascinating and surprising demonstrations of "old school" technology from decades ago. One of my favorites is to watch the steam-powered sawmill demonstrated. Very impressive. I still attend a local festival here in Delaware in the summer. My dad is gone now, but he taught me lots of pretty cool stuff, including a love and respect for the people and machines of the past.

Years ago, I bought my dad a working scale-model steam tractor for his birthday. It was made in Germany and I can't remember the name of the manufacturer (Pasco?), but it was an authentic, tiny steam engine that was fired by small fuel pellets that burned odorlessly, so one could "fire her up" in the house. It looked something like this:


He really enjoyed that thing, and so did I. My son, when he was small, would always go for that thing immediately after we would arrive at Grandpa's house for a visit. "Make it go!" he'd say. I hope I've passed some of that passion for steam on to my boy.


Steam power for personal transportation today is, in my view, nothing but an anachronism; its time has passed. The idea of an essay like this one though, is to celebrate what went before us, especially when it involves people of sheer genius and creativity, like Abner Doble. In my opinion, he deserves the same elevation in stature as an automotive "engineering artiste" as say, Ettore Bugatti or Ferdinand Porsche, etc. The fact that he and his creations are so forgotten today is a SIN, in my opinion, and little conversations like this one do some small justice to his memory, if only because we keep them alive in memory. Mr. Doble and his fabulous automobiles deserve no less.



From the "Six Degrees of Separation/They Said It Couldn't Be Done" department comes this little oddity of steam power. In 1933 an aircraft was designed and built, and flown, over Los Angeles that was powered by a two-cylinder, 150-horsepower steam engine designed by a former Doble employee. It was said to be unnerving to observers on the ground because it was utterly silent. It showed some promise, since the condensation of steam back into water was enhanced in the cold of high altitude flight, and the aircraft didn't need radio-wave shielding due to no ignition system, etc, but it proved to be a dead-end, even with Boeing continuing research into this field into the late thirties. It's certainly interesting as an engineering oddity, though.

Basic layout/cutaway of Doble-engined steam aircraft, from a Popular Mechanics article in 1933:


Photograph of the aircraft's engine running:

In recent years, BMW in Germany has been conducting tests of an advanced new supplementary power source for IC engines that uses steam power, called the "Turbosteamer". The last time I read about it, BMW's engineers were really progressing nicely with this "alternative hybrid" concept, which, while not really an "external combustion" steamer, still uses the tremendous power of superheated steam to provide something like 15-20% additional power to a conventional IC engine. It uses the "free" energy contained in both exhaust gases and in the waste heat in the engine coolant to generate steam in a twin-circuit ("low" for the coolant, "high" for the exhaust gas) auxiliary steam turbine (I believe) that inputs its power through the engine's crankshaft. It looks absolutely ingenious, and perhaps even very practical. A diagram of the BMW Turbosteamer system

Jay Leno, of show business and car-collecting fame, is a devoted steam-power enthusiast, and is the owner of several steam automobiles, including a few Stanleys, and at least one Doble Model E. It's so amazing, yet typical of Jay Leno, that he is enough of a free-thinker to actually take one of these virtual "automotive Faberge Eggs" out on public roads and use it as a car, just like it was built to be used. I admire him so much for that alone. To lock them up in the silence and sterility of a museum-setting would be very sad. I figure that everywhere Leno goes with a car like that Doble steamer, he sparks the imagination and interest of at least a handful of young people who probably otherwise never would have even known about such machines, or such great people as Abner Doble. Mr. Leno is nearly unique in the automotive world in this respect. In a way, he is the official "Goodwill Ambassador" for the old car hobby. That he does this so generously, un-self-consciously, and with his great gift for humor just makes him all the more admirable, IMO.


Take a look at this video produced by Jay Leno, in which he gives a "tour" of his Doble sedan. I'm wiping tears from my eyes after seeing that. God bless Jay Leno; that's all I can say. I really mean it when I say that I feel like he and I are kindred spirits; the one thing that differentiates us is his ability to live the dream and not just think about it.

http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/video/video_player.shtml?vid=213453

I'd never heard Leno discuss automobiles in that manner before; usually it's the "sound bite" kind of thing that cannot fully expose his real depth of knowledge and insight. I've wondered for years how he would really sound when given the time to fully express himself. I wasn't disappointed. He may very well be the best thing that has ever happened to the collector/vintage automobile movement. The love of automobiles is in his soul and being; you can feel it, and he is single-handedly helping to popularize and perpetuate that love of the automobiles of the past so that future generations will not forget and neglect them. Honest to God, I'd give anything just to meet him and thank him for what he does. Maybe this sounds like I'm slobbering all over the guy to some, but I'm not. This man deserves to be honored.

Here is a photograph of the instrument panel in Leno's Doble. In case anyone is wondering, the large ebony ring mounted above and within the steering wheel is the car's throttle control. There was no accelerator pedal on the E-series Dobles. You turned the ring to open the throttle or close it. I've read that in Leno's car, he had it modified to have a conventional foot-operated accelerator/throttle pedal, since the ring on the steering wheel can apparently get VERY confusing when cornering and modulating speed at the same time. I would love to be able to poke my head inside Leno's Doble. The aroma of wool upholstery, varnished woodwork, lacquers, horsehair padding, etc is so pleasant and evocative for any lover of old automobiles. They smell…wonderful. Regarding Leno driving his Doble around Los Angeles, it is perfectly fitting, in that the Doble factory was located in California, in a town called Emeryville, which is near San Francisco

There was another notable American steam-power automobile maker, namely Locomobile. Locomobile, a nearly forgotten marquee today, built steam automobiles from 1899 until about 1905 or so, and then switched over to gasoline-engined machines until they went belly-up in 1929. Locomobile, btw, built some of the most respected heavyweight, luxurious, expensive, and beautifully crafted cars of their time, with Hollywood celebrities among their frequent clientele. They were also, in their later gasoline years, notable race-winners too, and famed for their speed. Here is a 1900 Locomobile steamer, all spindly and "stone-age", but still chugging away a hundred years later. How many of today's cars will still be running in 2108, I wonder?

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One of the last, and certainly one of the most interesting steam-powered cars to be built was the 1953 Paxton Phoenix retractable-hardtop convertible. It was designed, and custom-built by the famous industrial designer Brooks Stevens for a wealthy business executive named Robert McCulloch, maker of the famous chainsaws, who desired a modern interpretation of a steam car. A refined version of Doble's steam powerplant was being developed for the Paxton car, which was to have gone into limited production, but when funding the project became too expensive to support any longer, the steam engine was replaced with the engine and transmission from a Porsche 356 (the suspension was already donated by a Porsche 356), and the production program for the design was cancelled. The prototype still exists, however.

It is intriguing to me, in the way that this car linked the ideas of two great automotive geniuses, Ferdinand Porsche and Abner Doble, in an unexpected way, and then included the ideas of one of the great design geniuses, Brooks Stevens, who designed this car for Mr. McCulloch. It's another kind of "six degrees of separation" phenomenon in the form of one automobile.


Steam power is like a kind of primeval thing in some ways. You can actually SEE the power being produced with steam engines; you can feel it in a way that can't be duplicated with IC power. It is almost as if the machines are alive. I love it, and I'm glad that a chosen few out there also enjoy these machines. It has been my pleasure to write a few words about it. Thank you for reading.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting article and great picture of the Paxton Phoenix. I've owned the car for the past ten years.

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  2. Great write-up Larry on an obscure but interesting corner of automotive history.

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  3. I visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. last week for the first time in several years. I was quite surprised to be able to see a Doble steam car in their collection. Being able to lay eyes on a Bugatti Royale and Doble in the same afternoon was a real treat.

    This is one of the most impressive museums of transportation and Americana in the entire country, and I hope everyone has the chance to visit it at some point in time.

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  4. Larry, steam power is indeed very fascinating! I really liked the information that you provided about steam powered cars. I am a vintage car enthusiast and I often wonder if today's cars would live to be called 'vintage' after a couple of decades.

    Effective car parts contribute to the success of a certain vehicle. The same era of Doble cars was the heyday of Barnes and Jones steam traps which are used for various steam powered vehicles. Barnes and Jones traps were known because of their 'cage units'. Such devices enabled easier repair of various steam traps from different manufacturers. Today, such devices are still used in trains and other steam related purposes.

    Very interesting post. Hope to see a vintage car show real soon. Thanks!

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  5. I love the pictures the pictures are great!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for posting a good article.

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