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Full Steam Ahead? Doble Steam Cars - Recollected & Appreciated

By Alan Moxhay

How to achieve clean transport is of great and immediate interest and I thought readers might like to share the story of another alternative form of automative excellence.

Ask any random group of car enthusiasts which was the most expensive make of luxury car produced in the US during the late 1920’s and early 30’s and the answer will probably be Pierce Arrow, Cadillac, Duesenberg or maybe Lincoln. The answer is, Doble – ring any bells? I thought not. Another interesting departure from accepted automotive practice is that Doble cars were powered by …………..steam!

As a prime mover of vehicles, steam power was nothing new in America. White and Stanley steamers had been around for many years and, in the days following the First World War, were becoming quite acceptable in design, but they still suffered the inherent problems of slow generation rates of steam, objectionable levels of smoke exhaust, mediocre and inconsistent performance in terms of speed, acceleration and reliability etc. By contrast, the Doble overcome all these problems and many more besides.

Doble cars was the brainchild of Abner Doble, born in 1895 in San Francisco. He was an engineering student at the renown Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) although there is no record of his graduation. He formed the Abner Doble Motor Vehicle Company of Waltham, Mass. and designed and built first prototype car in vehicle in 1914 while still a student. This was followed by four more cars designated as model A’s along with ongoing rigorous road and workshop testing and numerous Patent applications.

The genius of his design was based around the boiler which was of the flash-tube type. This meant that banks of tapered vertical steel tubes were welded to an overhead manifold through which water flowed. These tubes were fixed inside the circular boiler casing. Tapering these tubes, meant that heat dispersal was much more efficient and by adding a minute amount of mineral oil to the circulating boiler water to form an emulsion, the potentially serious problem of scale accumulation was avoided – brilliant! Fuel for the boiler heating was provided from low-grade kerosene (paraffin). This was more widely available than gasoline in those days and with a typical consumption of 15 miles per gallon, it was far more economic. Water consumption was quoted as miserly at around 120 mpg but this is now disputed by most owners.

Ignition of the atomised kerosene was from a single spark plug fixed inversely to the base of the boiler which fired as atomised fuel mixture passed through a venturi tube. By the time of production of the first Doble models, around 1915 onwards, steam production, sufficient for full powered movement of the car, was available inside 3 minutes with the boiler raising superheated steam at 750 lb/sq.in. This short time was gradually improved on even further on later models. It soon became possible to fire the boiler and generate full steam pressure inside 60 seconds. Use of kerosene was so efficient that the car produced no exhaust.

Boiler pressures of 5,000 lb/sq.in. were adopted for test purposes and in all the years of production, I could find no case of boiler failure. These days, a commuter with modern electrical devices would use his pre-programmed smart phone to fire the boiler before taking a morning shower! Doble quickly built a reputation for reliability and quality. Steam engines are self-starting under load and have nearly the same value of torque from standstill to maximum r.p.m. This led to a low engine power value of 150 hp but extraordinary torque of 1000 ft/lbs. There is no idling condition – when a steam engine stops, so does its engine. This lack of wear allowed Doble to issue every car sold after 1923,with a guarantee of 100,000 trouble-free miles.

Controls of the car were remarkably simple and a single foot pedal or column lever could move the car from 0 – 75 mph in 15 secs. and in complete silence. Remember, this was 1915 and with a car that weighed over 2 ton. Drive to the road wheels was via a triple bank of pistons located horizontally over the cars rear axle along with a dynamo to power lights, windshield wipers, electric relays etc. These pistons converted the steam power into motive energy similar in a way to a steam train. This meant that things like starter motor, gearbox, clutch, prop shaft, silencer, exhaust pipes and flywheel were all unnecessary. Water was stored in its own tank with the traditional front-end radiator now acting as a condenser for unused steam which was force-fed to the base of the boiler via electric solenoid switches. This meant that the car had no need for any piped water cooling, so things like thermostats, fan belts and water hoses were also not required as instead of trying to keep the engine block cool, steam engines required heat. The engine and power plant had only 11 movable parts – compare that to an internal combustion powered car! Changing forward drive into reverse was also easy, as operation of a foot pedal immediately reversed the motion of the crankshaft allowing the car full rearwards speed if required!

Brakes were the normal cable/drum type fitted to the rear wheels only. In those days traffic congestion was unheard of, so few considered that more elaborate braking systems were necessary. However, Doble thought that improvements were required, so he fitted 16½ x 4½ inch drums complete with a simple but reliable air intake system to keep the brake assembly cool. As with a steam locomotive, use of a foot pedal in an emergency, would instantly reverse the engine and bring the car to more-or-less, an instant stop at any speed.

Car production started in earnest in 1915 with new premises in California and a re-branding to Doble Steam Cars. During the next few years models changed as improvements were introduced. Abner Doble and his three brothers were the ultimate perfectionists only using the very top class materials and parts. Modifications were frequent, often previously-installed parts would be removed and replaced as a car was being assembled. Therefore, no two Dobles were the same, but not all improvements were for the customer’s benefit. The connection between the fuel filler cap and fuel tank consisted of a 60mm dia. flange incorporating a sealing gasket. Most production-line cars found that 5 – 6 bolts were sufficient to clamp this flange whereas high-end cars preferred 8 – 9 bolts. Rolls Royce always used 12, whilst Doble ……… opted for 13! As can be appreciated, this slavish desire for improvement and high quality would be responsible for their ultimate downfall. Abner Doble and his brothers had no interest in economics or modern industrial practices like unitary construction or conveyor belt assembly, which other manufactures like Henry Ford had already feverishly incorporated.

By 1931 Doble produced their popular model E and finally F which were the ultimate in design and steam car development. Doble had redesigned the boiler putting a single coiled tapered tube 576 ft. long inside the boiler shell whilst also reducing the overall size of the boiler to 22 in. diameter and 13 in. high. The triple bank of engine pistons was enlarged to four, with two low pressure and two high pressure, giving a total displacement of 3,490 cc. In those days, high-end cars were produced as two separate forms with Doble making the chassis, engine and all moving parts while specialist coachbuilders provided a range of four auto bodies. It was not unusual for completed cars to weigh over two tons and for a Doble to run at a top speed of 95 mph, and cruise all day at 55 – 60 mph all day if necessary, was a fantastic achievement. This was because at all stages of acceleration, the boiler always produced more steam than required. If sustained heavy pulling was encountered, like when climbing long gradients, Doble fitted an auxillary fan system to provide the boiler with additional fuel. This acted like a supercharger.

By the time of production of the model E in 1923, prices for complete cars ranged around $18,000 to $25,000, depending on body style. This was clearly serious money compared to a model T Ford which sold for just over $200. Purchasers of Doble cars were obviously the elite of the day with rich Bankers, financiers, and successful businessmen the principle interested parties. Being aware of his clientele, Doble included, in the car handbook, a list of regular maintenance items to be carried out by ‘your man’! Socialite heiress to the Woolworth store empire, Betty Hutton bought a Doble as did millionaire industrialist, Howard Hughes. Being something of an engineering fanatic, Hughes wrote to the factory after a short time, with a list of suggested improvements and re-designs. He then bought a second Doble, model E18 in 1925 complete with a roadster body, and carried out installation of his own modifications, notifying Doble that he had increased the top speed of his model E to a staggering 125mph. Probably the strangest purchase was for two E25 and E26 in 1928 by staff officers of the Soviet Government. The cars were crated and shipped to Russia and never heard of again. Now, there is the ultimate in holiday- based searches! A well-known steam enthusiast Charles Briar, bought a pre-owned model E from the elderly wife of a rich financier in 1931. Although the car had stood for two years maintained but unused, it was only necessary to top-up the fluids, pump the tyres and switch-on. The car was mobile in less than a minute and quickly reached optimum steam pressure. Mr Briar spent the next 20 years adding 146,000 miles to the cars milometer. Apart from normal maintenance, the car never broke down or required any attention. Reports of another model (E-14) showed it to have travelled 600,000 miles without any major repair. It could be construed, from the few details now provided, that Doble cars were very simple in construction. This was far from true as all Dobles were extremely complex but Abner Doble believed this complexity was essential for the creation and management of a steam engine sufficiently powerful to provide motive force but to do so in safety and with total reliability. Again, the painstaking choice of materials and specialist parts together with absolute perfection in construction and assembly and a design where every single detail was calculated and questioned many times before being adopted, led to a faultless end product.

Sadly only a few F-types were completed and sold before the inevitable happened and Doble were forced to close in 1931. Later that year Abner Doble left for Europe to see if he could stimulate sales of his steam machine. On the way he supervised the fitting of a steam plant into a Boeing light aircraft. In 1933, the plane flew – successfully and in complete silence – of course! Doble then visited the UK spending time at the Sentinel steam lorry factory in Shrewsbury. Although interested enough to commission a prototype, the days of the coal-fired steam lorry were coming to an end and Sentinal were doing everything possible to hang-on to their market share. Doble had more luck in Germany, where steam power units were installed into speed boats, trucks, busses and rail cars to the great admiration and enthusiasm of local Engineers, right up to the outbreak of WW2. Thereafter everything changed. Strangely, Doble met with even more success in post-war New Zealand where he developed steam plants to power the city buses of Auckland. They were apparently used satisfactorily for many years but history fails to record details of their final demise. My own research whilst visiting NZ also drew a complete blank. Doble returned to the US and was invited to explore two possible new steam car ventures during the 1950’s. Although one idea sponsored by the Paxton Motor Corp. led to a prototype, neither were to form the basis of future development.

The total output of Doble cars is speculative. Some sources give it as around 200, but others suggest it was much less. Today, there are about 15 Dobles left in working condition. Not surprisingly, most are to be found in the US but there is also one in New Zealand and I believe we have three, E12 and F22 owned by two enthusiasts in Yorkshire and a Doble chassis with a Daimler body, based in Buckinghamshire . Of those in America, most are to be found in major automobile collections like the Harrah and the Ford institute. One stood in the Smithsonian for many years but has since been relocated. The Nethercutt museum in Los Angeles had Hughes’s Model E 18 and another complete chassis but recently these have been sold to the well known US entertainer and car fanatic, Jay Leno, based elsewhere in California. Having already owned a Doble for some years, he set about a full restoration of E 18 - this was fabulously successful. The car has never looked better and is now in regular use. With only a small number of working examples and only a very slim chance of finding another, Dobles only rarely come-up for sale. Todays commercial price of a complete restored model would be speculative, but it seems certain that it would be measured in millions of dollars.

Abner Doble died in July 1961 and the world was robbed of one of its true engineering giants. It is sad beyond words that he should have ended his life in relative obscurity and that the full genius of his knowledge and design is still only appreciated by a few. When I was learning to fire and operate a full-size steam locomotive, my tutor told me that a steam engine is the closest thing man ever invented to his own kind. The engine knows what you require of it. All you have to do is pull the right levers! That was certainly true of all the steam trains I drove but I also think it is so with the Doble car. Abner Doble knew how to get the most out of a basic energy source and developed it into a thing of engineering excellence and beauty. We may perhaps allow ourselves a minute to romanticise about how things might have been if modern materials, electrics, fuel technology and workshop practices had been applied to Doble’s original concept of steam power. Imagine a world where cars, lorries, trains, boats and even aircraft operated in complete silence, produced no pollution, with reliability and little need for maintenance but having operational lives far longer than could be expected from internal combustion or jet engines.

Acknowledgements

I must acknowledge the valuable information contained within J.N.Walton’s book – Doble Steam Cars, 1965 and the article by Maurice D. Hendy – Doble – steam, the classic prime mover, Veteran & Vintage magazine 1966, the Antique Car Club of AmericaClub , the Steam Car of Great Britain and finally to Jay Lenos Garage for his wonderful video clips and commentary.

Posted in History on Jul 01, 2019