The early automobile era saw an eclectic collection of competing propulsion ideas –electric vehicles, internal combustion engines, and steam – vying for viability. We’re left with two of those today, with steam power falling out of favor over 100 years ago. Steam-powered cars were cumbersome, quirky, and novel machines, and a new video from Jay Leno’s Garage shows off their complexity and marvelous engineering, too.
Leno details the intricate starting process of a 1909 White Model M, taking the car from storage to the open road. This wouldn’t be the daily start-up process if this was driven every day, though it’s still a complex process to get going. The White, which uses a steam generator instead of a boiler, makes a max of 40 horsepower (30 kilowatts), though there were less-powerful versions available, too. It requires pilot fuel, regular fuel, and water to operate.
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The White Model M is unlike anything available today, sporting gauges for fuel, fire, water, and more. It has three peddles, with the right-most one operating the vehicle's dicey brakes. The small wheel inside the steering wheel works the throttle, allowing the car to reach 60-65 miles per hour (96-104 kilometers per hour); however, Leno says the car’s sweet spot is at around 40 mph.
The steam generator is surprisingly quiet once it reaches the proper operating temperature, which is capable of running at a low 25 rpm, which is fascinating to watch. Internal combustion engines idle at just under 1,000 rpm.
Gas-powered cars weren’t much simpler in the early 1900s, often requiring hand cranks, chokes, and general fiddling to get running. However, starter technology has come quite far in a century, with many of today’s vehicles using push-button start. Even the traditional key is going away as automakers integrate smartphone apps and better connectivity into their cars – all advancements we easily take for granted today.