Steam on the road

At first no one knew that motor cars would one day run on petrol. At the beginning of the 20th century, a lot more of them ran on steam

The best-selling steam cars were made by the twin brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley. "They were teachers turned inventors," says Glasgow Museum's Neil Johnson-Symington. "They were wizards of self-promotion." 

Steam cars were easy to drive, he says, because they did not need a clutch or gears. "They held the land speed record for 4 years in a row. They were reliable, quiet and fast."

But there was a downside. "It took 25 minutes to start the engine. And you had to stop every 50 kilometres to fill up with water."

A steam engine is an external combustion engine. That means the fuel is burnt in a container separate from the water, which it heats to make steam to drive a piston. 

A petrol engine is an internal combustion engine. That means the burning fuel creates hot gases that drive the piston directly. 

For the same power a petrol engine can be smaller and lighter than a steam engine. Mainly because it doesn't need a separate boiler, condenser and water supply. Then there's the question of cost, says Mr Johnson-Symington.

"Stanley steam cars were hand-built using traditional skills. But these methods were becoming out of date. In 1914 Stanley made 650 cars. That's how many the Ford Motor Company built in one day. 

"In the end the steam car could not compete with Henry Ford's mass-produced petrol cars." 

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