1925 Doble Steam Car
1925 Doble Steam Car. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Steam engines came of age in the 19th century so it’s not surprising that when the automobile emerged near the end of that century steam would be one of its power sources. Steam’s 150-year head start should have given it the upper hand over the internal combustion gasoline engine, but it had some disadvantages for automobiles.

Steam engines tended to be heavier than gasoline engines, making them more suitable for heavy duty or stationary applications. They required a skilled operator, generating steam was slow, and there was a fear of boiler explosion, real or imagined.

In spite of these disadvantages, some of which would be overcome, manufacturers such as the Stanley brothers of Massachusetts, and the White Company of Cleveland, Ohio, made successful steamers for many years.

Under intense competition, gasoline engines improved very rapidly, a seminal development being the electric starter in 1912. By the mid-1920s the most successful maker of steamers, Stanley, was in the process of going out of business.

Most thought this was the end of the steam automobile, which had its longest run in America, but they didn’t reckon with the persistence of steam enthusiast Abner Doble. Doble, born in 1895 in San Francisco, demonstrated his technical abilities early by building his first steam car while still in high school. He developed a lifelong passion for steam power.

Doble studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, and while he was there he visited the Stanley plant in Newton, Massachusetts. He came away believing he could make a better steamer.

In 1912, Abner and his brother John built the Model A powered by a two-cylinder, double action, single expansion steam engine mounted horizontally on the rear axle. It had a condenser which recovered all of the used steam, not just some of it as the Stanley did. Steam was condensed and re-used, substantially reducing water consumption. The Dobles had built the most efficient steamer in America.

In 1914, Doble left MIT and established the Abner Doble Motor Vehicle Co. in Waltham, Mass. Although under-capitalized, he built five Model As, then designed the improved Model B, although it was not produced.

By 1915 that business was finished, so Doble headed west to Detroit where he obtained backing to establish the General Engineering Co. to build his even better Model C Doble. It was so advanced that it could be driven off in only three minutes.

The Model C was enthusiastically received at the New York Automobile Show, and many orders flowed in. But some technical problems, and First World War priorities, interrupted production. General Engineering was dissolved, and Doble reorganized as the Doble-Detroit, but built only a few cars before returning to California.

Doble was still determined to pursue his steam car, and in 1920 he and his brothers John and Warren established yet another company, Doble Steam Motors Corp., in Emeryville, California.

After a couple of lesser models, Abner Doble introduced his dream car, the Series E, in 1922. Production began in 1923 just as the most prolific of steamers, the Stanley, was dying.

With the Series E, Doble attacked the very essence of steam car problems: slow start-up time, and the constant adjustments required to keep the engine running. His flash boiler was ready to go in about a minute, and he solved the messy and sometimes dangerous task of lighting the burner by using two electric spark plugs to ignite a gun-type kerosene burner, similar to that in modern furnaces. This heated the tube-filled cylindrical boiler.

The Model E was so efficient that it was said to run up to 1,500 miles (2,415 km) without filling its 24 gallon (110 litre) water tank. Power for the Series E came from a 3.5-litre (213 cu in.) four-cylinder steam engine with two high-pressure and two low-pressure cylinders. It developed a maximum of 125 horsepower, and was mounted as a unit with the rear axle. The boiler was under the hood with the condenser in front like the radiator of a gasoline car.

Torque was estimated at 1,000 pounds-feet at zero rpm, a colossal figure for a car. The low rpm/torque feature of the steamer gave it a substantial acceleration and hill climbing advantage over gasoline cars.

Although the E Series was a large car with a 3,607 mm (142 in.) wheelbase, and a weight of over 1,909 kg (4,200 lb), the small engine could push it to 153 km/h (95 mph), and cruise at 121 (75).

The Doble was, as Abner had envisioned, a truly luxurious car in the order of the British Rolls-Royce or the Spanish Hispano-Suiza. Its silver spoked steering wheel, for example, was made of African ebony.

The Doble Series E was undoubtedly the finest steam car ever produced. In spite of this, few were built, probably between 30 to 40 over its eight-year production span.

The Doble company never flourished, the victim of low sales, some stock manipulations over which Abner apparently had no control, and finally, the advent of the Great Depression in 1929. Doble Steam Motors was liquidated in 1931. Abner Doble continued to consult on other steam car projects until his death in 1961.

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