The Rankine cycle, which the Cyclone Technologies steam engine is based on

Are steam cars poised for an epic comeback?

By Sebastian Anthony on February 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Once upon a time, the steam engine reigned supreme — first in trains and heavy tractors, as you well know, but eventually in cars as well. It’s quite hard to fathom today, but at the turn of the 20th century, more than half the cars in the US were steam-powered. The steam engine was so advanced that, in 1906, a steam car called the Stanley Rocket even held land speed record — a heady 127 mph!

Now, you might think that the steam car was only a success because internal combustion engines (ICE) didn’t exist yet — but in actual fact, steam cars and ICE cars were developed contemporaneously. Because engineers already had 100 years of steam engine experience, though, the steam car had a rather large head start. While hand-cranked ICEs were breaking the arms of hapless operators, by 1900 steam cars were already highly automated — and, with no clutch or gearbox (steam provides constant pressure, unlike the piston strokes of an ICE), very easy to drive. The one caveat, of course, was that you had to wait a few minutes for the boiler to heat up.

In a few short years, though, Henry Ford would come along and change everything. While the steam engine might’ve been technically superior to the ICE, they couldn’t match the price of mass-produced Fords. Steam car makers tried to shift gears and market their cars as premium, luxury products, but by 1918 the Model T Ford was six times cheaper than a Stanley Steamer (the most popular steam car at the time). With the advent of the electric starter motor in 1912, and continuing advances to the efficiency of ICEs, it wasn’t long until the steam car vanished from our roads.

Under pressure

For the last 90 years, steam cars have remained on the verge of extinction, the hulking beasts being wheeled out for vintage car shows but not much more. Quietly, though, in the background, research has quietly trickled onward — partly because of our reliance on steam turbines in power generation, but also because some people believe steam engines can actually be superior to internal combustion engines.

Read more: Are steam cars poised for an epic comeback? | ExtremeTech.

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