Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Short History of the Different Car Motors - Steam, Gas, Electric, Prop, Etc.

A Short History of the Different Car Motors - Steam, Gas, Electric, Prop, Etc.

By: Isaiah Cox

Before the sun came up this morning I found myself lying in bed listening to a little pump engine thump-thump-thump away.  Had it been a car motor, the knock would be terminal, but God willing this little motor will have a much longer life than any car motor.  Our baby girl made a light attempt at an early escape from the womb and now we’re in the hospital making sure she’s willing to stay put for a month or so more.  The knocking noise is the sound of her little heart pumping away. While lying around a hospital room listening to her little pump motor, I did find myself considering the variety of motors that are out there and decided with my free time I might as well write up another blog on the history of different auto motors (at least the history that I know) because it is an interesting subject that I’m not sure everyone is aware of.

Benz Motorwagen

Karl Benz is generally credited with the first car, with his 1885 invention the Benz Motorwagen, but there are several reasons to contest this designation.  For one, the Land Speed record body won’t recognize three wheelers as cars so why should we recognize Karl’s car?  Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America car broke through the land speed record in the 60s, but they failed to dub him the fastest man on earth because it wasn’t a car having four wheels.  Secondly, there had been many interesting steam autos that could travel off tracks before Karl.  Consider pictures of several of Amédée Bollée’s steam autos. 

Not a car? - Spirit of America

Bollee Steam Auto

Amédée Bollée’s autos predate Benz’ creation and incorporate technology that wouldn’t be seen in gas engine cars for 15 years (such as the steering wheel). Amédée Bollée’s cars are just one example of a long lineage of steam autos dating back possibly as early as the 16th century.  I’d recommend reading the wikipedia article on these fascinating autos that challenged this authors over-simplistic idea that before Karl Benz there were just horses and carriages -

Here’s a satirical London cartoon from 1831 showing cars?

Karl Benz was a motor builder with a passion for bicycles and by mounting one of his four strokes to a trike he created his Motor wagen.  It can likely be credited to Karl that he created the first gasoline powered auto.

An interesting note is that it’s credited to Karl’s wife two significant ideas/inventions: while struggling with hills she suggested a second gear ratio and secondly, on a long trip after several scary downhills, Bertha Benz had a shop owner add leather to the brake blocks to slow the car faster inventing the first brake liners.

Also of note, in the late 1800s gasoline was being sold in pharmacies as a household cleaning solvent.

At the same time, many inventors were putting electric motors into carriages.  Ferdinand Porsche was one of the early inventors engaged with electric vehicles and at the turn of the century he invented a hub driven design that closely mirrors the modern electric vehicle system for regenetive braking.

Electric vehicles were known as the doctor’s car because they required no time to warm up and were reliable for urgent trips across town.

In his autobiography, the American hero Eddie Rickenbacker shared a story of an experience he had with an electric car as a young man at the turn of the century.  He’d been working in an automobile shop and had stolen one of the electric cars that was in the shop for a date.  Unfortunately the car ran out of juice before he could make it back to the shop.  An interesting fact about batteries is that they’ll regain a small charge when left to sit.  Rickenbacker would sleep for short periods in the car, drive it as far as he could before it petered out again, and then he’d repeat.  He got it back to the shop minutes before the shop owner came in.

Steam continued to develop but as gas developed steam was limited because of the time it took to start the car (in some cases, as long as a half hour) and boiler explosions tainted their reputation.  White and Stanley were well known for their steam cars and between 1899 and 1905 Stanley Steamers outsold all gasoline cars.  The Stanley’s efficient boiler setup and reliability (which included safety valves and joints designed for failure; there are no recorded cases of Stanley’s exploding) helped their sales.

1903 Stanley Steamer Land Speed Record Breaker

Up to circa 1908 electric, steam and gasoline cars were neck and neck for sales.  But Henry Ford came along with a fascinating idea of a reliable affordable car for every family.  This is oversimplifying, but the Ford Model T effectively killed the other car markets.  Roads were improving and the distances the Model T could effectively cover appealed to Americans as well as the cost.  In an attempt to compete Stanley fitted a re-capture system to the their steam motors so that it wasn’t necessary to add as much water during trips.

1910 Model T

The Stanley Steamer shop closed in 1917 and steam didn’t see much resurgence until just recently.  Jay Leno is a big steam advocate and his shop has been working on ways to increase burner efficiency and public awareness.  Also, a google of youtube reveals firms working on commercializing steam motors.

Electric cars were produced throughout the 20thcentury, but never saw much success.  Modern electric vehicle automakers are attempting to sell electric vehicles as great idea, brought about by GM in the 90’s but killed in an evil corporate strategy, but the reality is much less intriguing.  There are examples of failed electric vehicle efforts in almost every decade of the 20th century.  An interesting thing to note is that if you wiki electric vehicles, none of those efforts are mentioned (corporate strategy?), but if you wiki electric cars there’s a brief description of the efforts from 1910-1990.  Range anxiety, as it’s labeled, continues to be a limiting factor in electric vehicle sales to this day.  The next battery technology that solves the range problem seems always to be around the corner but hybrids do seem to be a game changer (combined electric and gas).

1961 Electric Car - Kilowatt

Before we move away from the early 20th century, although not a different form of motor, it should still be noted that racers were jamming motors designed for large airplanes into their cars forming what were known as Aero-Cars.  One of the most famous, named Mephistopheles, started life as a 1908 race car with an oversized Fiat motor but after the first war the owner jammed a WW1 Fiat airplane motor into it. 


Another aero-car with fascinating history is Babs, which after the owner/driver lost his life in it, was buried in place on the beach where he was attempting the record.  40 years later it was dug up and restored (the author is looking for pictures of this rebuild).

The French were left with a glut of radial airplane motors after WW1 and experimented with prop driven cars.  Helica managed to sell 30 cars to the public, a number of which survive today.

1921 Helica

1932 Helicon

1932 Helicon

The Russians also produced a prop driven ski machine out of their people's car with a massive radial motor mounted above the cab.

Prop driven cars aren't quite as rare as one might think and they appear ideal to arctic climates because the drivetrain won't get stuck in the snow (a fellow blogger pulled together a great history on these prop driven cars -

The next significant motor to come around was the jet engine invented circa 1938-1943.  This motor had an obvious application in land speed records but also many auto firms attempted to incorporate the jet into production vehicles.  The jet motor has few parts and if it could be incorporated it had the potential to drastically reduce costs and complexity of motors.  Unfortunately no one could figure out how to get jet motors to work efficiently at low speeds/idle where it burns way too much fuel.

Chrysler tried to destroy all of their prototype 55 production jet cars but 9 have survived (and again, Leno owns one of them).

The production jet car lived on in terms of design though.  One of the most popular 60’s muscle cars was designed with the jet in mind; Peter Brock’s Corvette Stingray genesis sketch stole design lines straight from a fighter jet.

Jet cars became the norm for land speed records.  Breedlove’s Spirit of America, which he crashed into a canal (his crew found him sitting on the tail and his famous quote is "and now for my next act..."), was just one of the first of a long line of jet turbine land speed record cars.  The record is currently held by Andy Green and the ThrustSSC which has a turbo jet.

There’s a company in Florida that is currently putting decommissioned helicopter jet turbine motors in motorcycles and boats (MTT -

My little brother is a Marine and he tells me that his tanks are turbine powered!

In the same vein of reciprocating motors like the jet (and one would guess, the turbine jet was the genesis of the design) was the Wankel Rotary motor designed in the late 50s which has a rotating (piston) design.  The motor was used in a few concept cars, including the Mercedes C111 (with a striking resemblance to a Maserati Ghibli), but only Mazda has commercialized the motor in their RX cars.  On the motorcycle side Norton also adopted this motor.

Solar cars have seen some popularity at the prototype level thanks to some interesting races, often pitting collegiate institutions against each other, but the motor is still electric so I wouldn't consider it a "new" form of motor.

Since the invention of the rotary motor, no significant new forms of motor come to mind.  There’s been significant evolution, and in the case of electric hybrids, merging of the motor types, but nothing new.  What’s next?  We no longer use gears and pulleys in large civil equipment; perhaps there’ll be a motor that leverages hydraulic pressure in a similar vein. Perhaps there’ll be a day where modular nuclear power is safe enough and controlled to such a point that personal motors could utilize the nuclear technology (potentially a fuel once every 10(?) years motor!). Who knows what lays in stock, but let’s hope that our spirit of invention isn’t over, and that we haven’t seen the last of new motor technologies. 

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