When primitive automobiles first began to appear in the 1800s, their engines were based on steam power, the same power source which had motivated the Industrial Revolution. Steam had already enjoyed a long and successful career in locomotive powerplants, so it was only natural that the technology evolved into a miniaturized version which was unshackled from the rails. But these early cars inherited steam’s weaknesses along with its strengths. The boilers had to be lit by hand, and they required about twenty minutes to build up pressure before they could be driven. Furthermore, their water reservoirs only lasted for about thirty miles before needing replenishment. Despite such shortcomings, these newfangled self-propelled carriages offered quick transportation, and by the early 1900s it was not uncommon to see such machines shuttling wealthy citizens around town.
But the glory days of steam cars were few. A new technology called the Internal Combustion Engine soon appeared, which offered the ability to trundle down the road just moments after starting up. At first these noisy gasoline cars were unpopular because they were more complicated to operate, and they had difficult hand-crank starters which were known to break arms when the engines backfired. But in 1912 General Motors introduced the electric starter, and over the following few years steam was gradually sacrificed at the altar of convenience. Even as the steam car market was briskly evaporating, four brothers named Doble made one last effort to rekindle the technology, and the vehicles they eventually produced proved to be extraordinary machines.
During the years between 1906 and 1909, while still attending high school, Abner Doble and and his brothers John, Warren, and Bill built their first steam car in their parents’ basement. It was comprised of parts taken from a wrecked White steamer, but reconfigured to drive an engine of their own design. Though it did not run well, the Doble brothers went on to build a second and third prototype in the following years, further re-imagining the steam car concept that the auto industry had abandoned. Their third prototype— nicknamed the Model B— led Abner to file a handful of patents for the related innovations, including a water-condensing system which allowed the water supply to last about 1,500 miles in contrast to a typical steamer’s 100 miles. The Model B design also protected the boiler’s internals from rust and scale by mixing the engine oil with the boiler water, thus resolving a common steam car nuisance.
Though the Doble boys’ prototype still lacked the convenience of an internal combustion engine, it drew the attention of automobile trade magazines due to its numerous improvements over previous steam cars. Aside from the slow startup time, the Model B proved to be superior to gasoline automobiles in many ways. Its high-pressure steam drove the engine pistons in virtual silence, in contrast to clattering gas engines which emitted the aroma of burned hydrocarbons. It also had no clutch or transmission, because the full energy of the stored steam pressure was available at all times. Perhaps most impressively, the Model B was amazingly swift. The prototype could accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour in just fifteen seconds, a feat described as “remarkable acceleration” by Automobile magazine in 1914. The contemporary Model T from Ford took about forty seconds to reach its top speed of 40-50 miles per hour.
The following year Abner drove his Model B from Massachusetts to Detroit in order to seek investment in his automobile design. He managed to scrape together $200,000, which he used to open the General Engineering Company. He and his brothers immediately began working on the Model C, which was intended to expand upon the innovations of the Model B. The brothers added a key-based ignition in the cabin, eliminating the need for the operator to manually ignite the boiler. John Doble— perhaps the cleverest engineer in the family— also devised a flash boiler system where kerosene was atomized and ignited with a spark plug, which then rapidly heated the water inside coiled steel tubing. This change allowed the new Doble-Detroit to be ready to drive in as little as 90 seconds after ignition. With these improvements, the Dobles’ new car company promised a steamer which would provide all of the convenience of a gasoline car, but with much greater speed, much simpler driving controls, and a virtually silent powerplant.
In January 1917, Abner Doble decided to enter his unusual new car into the annual National Automobile Show in New York. Almost 100 new cars were on display at the influential convention, and the Dobles’ was the only steam car among them. Nevertheless, each day the modern prototype drew a crowd of onlookers, which underscored the public’s eagerness for something better than the persnickety clutch-and-transmission contraptions they’d been driving. Doble’s car was not only more powerful, but it had only four drive controls: a steering wheel, a brake pedal, a reverse pedal, and a hand-operated throttle knob. By the following April, the General Engineering Company had received 5,390 deposits for Doble Detroits, which were scheduled for delivery in early 1918.
Later that year Abner Doble delivered unhappy news to those eagerly awaiting the delivery of their modern new cars. After building just eleven of the Doble-Detroit steamers, the company had imploded. Abner publicly put the blame on steel shortages due to the ongoing World War, however this explanation proved to be a fiction he had manufactured to conceal the true reason for the company’s demise: the Doble-Detroit was mechanically unsound. Those customers who received the handful of completed cars complained that the vehicles were sluggish and unpredictable, sometimes going in reverse when they should go forward. The new engine design, though innovative, was still plagued with serious glitches. Furthermore, the Doble family was bitterly divided over Abner’s insistence on publicly taking credit for all of the company’s technical achievements, even those rightfully belonging to his brothers. John eventually reached a breaking point and sued Abner for patent infringement, and a castigated Abner left Detroit to move to California.
The event might have vaporized the brothers’ steam car dreams had it not been for John’s untimely death a few years later. He died of lymphatic cancer at age 28, an event which reunited the surviving brothers for one final attempt to produce a viable steam automobile. They established Doble Steam Motors in Emeryville, California, and began working to resolve the shortcomings of the Doble-Detroit. The three men redesigned the boiler to further improve its reliability and performance, and reworked the steam-driven piston engine to have both high-pressure and low-pressure cylinders. The engine was integrated directly into the rear axle, so there was no need for a drive shaft. With no clutch, transmission, or drive shaft, the Model E was a very straightforward machine with only twenty-five moving parts in the entire drive train. Fully loaded with kerosene and water, the new Doble car weighed about 5,500 pounds, which is roughly equivalent to a modern Ford Expedition.
In early 1924— over ten years after the unofficial demise of steam technology— the Doble brothers shipped a Model E to New York City to be road-tested by the Automobile Club of America. After sitting overnight in freezing temperatures, the car was pushed out into the road and left to sit for over an hour in the frosty morning air. At the turn of the key, the boiler lit with a throaty burst reminiscent of a gas furnace, and the gauges began to twitch. The boiler reached its operating pressure inside of forty seconds, and the driver experimentally turned the throttle knob on the steering wheel. With a low hum, the car’s steam engine briskly pushed the vehicle forward with 1,000 foot-pounds of torque, smoothly accelerating the car and its four passengers to forty miles per hour in just just 12.5 seconds. As they drove the test vehicle further, they found that its evenly-distributed weight lent it surprisingly good handling in spite of its great mass. The onlookers were understandably quite impressed. The only notable shortcoming was its mediocre braking performance, but this flaw was eclipsed by its massive, silent power and graceful handling. It seemed that the the Doble brothers were finally following through on their promise of a great steam car.
As the new Doble steamer was further developed and tested in the Emeryville factory, a lighter version of the Model E zipped from zero to seventy-five miles per hour in a jaw-dropping ten seconds. Even at such high speeds, the engine and drive train were free of noticeable vibration, and the steam piston engine was turning at a leisurely 900 RPM. The model E’s maximum speed was pushed to over 100 miles per hour, and it achieved about fifteen miles per gallon of kerosene with negligible emissions. The engine and drivetrain were solid and reliable, and due to Abner’s perfectionist nature the parts in the steamer’s drive system were machined to fit perfectly, negating the need for problematic gaskets.
Sadly, the Dobles’ brilliant steam car never was a financial success, even with its groundbreaking technology. Priced at around $18,000 in 1924, it was popular only among the very wealthy. Its acceptance was also crippled by the Dobles’ previous missteps in the auto industry, and by Abner’s relentless perfectionism. It is said that no two Model E’s were quite the same, because he tinkered endlessly with the design. The brothers might have been able to resolve such issues, but they were undone by Abner’s tendency to stretch and bend the law in much the same manner as he did technology. In 1924 the state of California learned that he had helped to sell stock illegally in a desperate bid to raise money for the company. Though Abner was eventually acquitted on a technicality, the company folded during the intervening legal battle. Fewer than fifty of the amazing Model E steam cars were produced before the company went out of business in 1931.
Abner went on to work as a consultant for other automakers all over the world. For his whole career, until his death in 1961, Abner Doble remained adamant that steam-powered automobiles were at least equal to gasoline cars, if not superior. Given the evidence, he may have been right. Many of the Model E Dobles which have survived are still in good working condition, some having been driven over half a million miles with only normal maintenance. Astonishingly, an unmodified Doble Model E runs clean enough to pass the strict emissions laws in California today.
Several automakers continued to experiment with steam until 1973, when the Arab oil embargo forced them to concentrate resources on the problem of fuel efficiency in existing engines. Since that time, not many manufacturers have put much research into a car powered primarily by steam. It is true that the technology poses some difficult problems, but one cannot help but be curious how efficient a steam car might be with the benefit of modern materials and computers. With today’s pressure to improve automotive performance and reduce emissions, it is not unthinkable that the steam car may rise again.