What Is a Steam Car?

Dan Cavallari

A steam car is a type of automobile that was powered by steam in much the same way steam engines on trains are powered. The car features a boiler that produces steam, which eventually leads to forward thrust for the vehicle. This style of vehicle is very antiquated, and most steam car models stopped being produced prior to 1920. It was replaced with the gas-powered automobile that utilized an internal combustion engine. Steam cars emit far less pollutants than internal combustion engines, though the engine is large, heavy, and in need of constant attention during use.

Originally, gas-powered cars were started with hand cranks, which could be dangerous and difficult to use.
Originally, gas-powered cars were started with hand cranks, which could be dangerous and difficult to use.

A common misconception about the steam car has been the belief that early models did not produce enough power to be competitive with gas-powered engines. A steam car was, in fact, quite capable of attaining high speeds and even held records for land speed at one point. The technology for steam engines was already in existence since locomotives were already using the technology, so steam car models became very prevalent before gas-powered automobiles did. The technology regarding the internal combustion engine advanced rapidly, however, and it was easier to use than a steam engine.

The steam car was propelled forward using steam power generated by a boiler. This boiler was very heavy and took up most of the space in the engine compartment. The boiler needed to be fed water at a fairly constant rate, which meant water needed to be replenished in the steam-generating system very often. Gas-powered vehicles needed replenishment far less often, which meant the inconvenience of having to refuel the steam car became a rather significant disadvantage. Unlike combustion engines, however, steam engines were very quiet and produced less exhaust, so many people preferred this engine over the noisy and dirt y combustion engine.

Other drawbacks to steam cars kept customers away, especially after electric starters were developed for gas powered vehicles. Steam cars could be driven fast, but the warm-up time was fairly extended, since it took a long time to get the boiler up to operating temperature. People were willing to deal with this inconvenience when gas-powered cars were started with hand cranks, which could be dangerous and difficult to use. When electric starters were developed, however, combustion engines became easier and safer to start, while steam cars were still difficult to get going. The radiators in steam cars also needed to be much larger, further adding to the overall weight of the vehicle.

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Discussion Comments


I agree with @Feryll that the steam car would have been less harmful for the environment than the gasoline car, but thankfully we have other alternatives today, and they are more user friendly than the steam powered cars. Once more of us start driving electric and solar cars we will start to cut back on some of the pollution in the air.


I read an article that details how the world would be different if the gasoline powered car had never been developed. One of the big differences is that we wouldn't be paying so much money for oil. And of course we wouldn't have as much pollution and smog in the air.

When you think that about seventy-five percent of the carbon monoxide in the air comes from cars the inconvenience of steam engine cars doesn't sound so bad.

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