Early Steam Powered Vehicles

Steam power was at one time the power of choice. Steam power moved our steamboats from the early years of the 1800’s all the way well into the 1900’s. It would only be natural that inventors of automobiles and motorcycles would attempt to harness this power for their creations.

steam flyer motorcycle
The Steam Flyer on display

One such endeavor was the building of a practical steam powered motorcycle. The motorcycle in many ways was the further development of the bicycle. A bicycle with power other than your legs. Most historians contend that the first motorcycle was the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede built in 1868.This model had a alcohol burner and twin belt drives. Just one year later came the American Roper steam velocipede. Roper built ten of these twin cylinder steam motorcycles.

Today, we’re fortunate to have a great example of a steam powered motorcycle on display at San Francisco’s Fishermans Wharf in the Musee Mecanique. This model, called the Steam Flyer and also referred to as the 1912 Gilligan Steam Flyer built in Sacramento California , weighed 350 pounds with a 67 1/2 inch wheelbase. The builder of this unique machine claimed that he could ride 150 miles without requiring fuel or water fill ups although with the size of the two containers, most felt that a fill up would be necessary about every 15 miles or so. There were many upgrades to the motorcycle over the years with a more significant one being the conversion of the burner from vaporization from atomizing. There is also a story around that the French government wanted to buy the motorcycle but the offer was apparently thought too low. Nevertheless, this historic steam powered motorcyle is on display in the Musee Mecanique and is definitely worth the visit to view it. You may also be interested in our article from Western Trips about the famous Steam Flyer on display in San Francisco.

In 1919 a company called DKW which had experimented unsuccessfully with steam powered cars came up with a small two stroke engine that it developed into a motorcycle engine in 1922. DKW, stands for “Dampfkraftwagen,” or steam-driven vehicle. DKW was the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer in the late 1920’s.


steam flyer gauges
Steam Flyer Motorcycle pressure gauges

It wouldn’t be long before steam power was adapted to automobiles. Between the years 1873 to 1883 steam powered passenger vehicles were developed by Amedee Bollee of Le Mans. The boiler on these 6 to 12 passenger vehicle was placed behind the passenger compartment with the engine in front. In 1894 the first 2 passenger car was produced with a condenser but failed to be a success. It would be some time before steam power was honed enough to make the steam automobile practical. In the year 1902 a little over half of cars registered were steam powered vehicles. The internal combustion engine wasn’t necessarily the power source of choice that early in the 1900’s. Steam power had been utilized for so long both with the steamboats and inside factories and mills that it had plenty of supporters.

roper steam carriage
Sylvester Roper’s 1870 Steam Carriage

Two of the more popular steam powered cars built after the year 1900 were the White Steamer and Stanley Steamer. The White Steamer was produced in Cleveland Ohio for ten years beginning in 1900. The Stanley Steamer which is probably the best known of these vehicles was built from 1896 to 1924. That’s a pretty long stretch of production during the time that internal combustion engines came on the scene. Stanley’s steam boilers were made lightweight but strong with piano wire wrapped around the boiler. In addition to this there were several pressure safety features installed such as safety valves and joints that would rupture if steam pressure reached dangerous levels. Anyone familiar with steamboat history will know that boiler explosions were their major problem and many times quite deadly. The fact remained that the internal combustion engine which was much cheaper and obviously easier tom fuel and control that would be the eventual demise of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company. History shows that advertising from the Stanley Motor carriage Company claimed that the internal combustion engine could explode. Something strange considering the history of steamboat boilers. The advertising campaign obviously wasn’t successful.

The internal combustion engine just had too much more to offer. The decline didn’t really have anything to do with safety concerns. Power and economic factors were the difference.  For one thing, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company didn’t produce a steam engine with more than 20 HP. Additionally, the price for one of these cars was several times higher than a Ford Model T. A Model T could be bought for under $500 in 1924.