“It seems clear that a rapid escape from lock-in, a move from gasoline to the electric vehicle, is not going to happen.” That was the conclusion of a 1996 Canadian-Swedish scholarly paper, “Escaping Lock-in: the Case of the Electric Vehicle.” Yet the electric-drive Chevrolet Volt was our Automobile of the Year in 2011, and the Tesla Model S took the award this year, a century after its forebears were quickly disappearing from the marketplace. The largest-selling car in California today is Toyota’s Prius, conceptually a close descendant of Ferdinand Porsche’s 1901 Lohner-Porsche hybrid gasoline/electric car.
As the 1996 paper on electric cars suggested, real advantages can be and often are overlooked or flatly rejected because of industrial inertia, vested interests — including users’ habits — and the existence of more or less satisfactory solutions. The authors specifically cited the Dvorak keyboard. A computer keyboard with that layout can provide a 20 to 40 percent time savings over the common QWERTY keyboard, which was designed to slow typists so that they wouldn’t overwhelm the typebar mechanisms on early typewriters. Today’s computers can switch to the Dvorak layout in a fraction of a second at no cost, but reprogramming our brains and fingers is no small matter, so none of us use the better solution.
For more than a hundred years, the term “automobile” has essentially meant a four-wheeled vehicle propelled by an internal-combustion, reciprocating-piston, poppet-valve engine operating on either the Otto or Diesel cycle. Your present car almost certainly corresponds to this description, as only a tiny percentage of all cars in operation today vary from it. That has not always been so. In 1900, there were 4192 motor vehicles registered in the United States: 1681 driven by steam, 1575 by electricity, and 936 by gasoline piston engines, and it was not at all clear which technology might triumph.
Just five years later, there were some 78,000 motor vehicles in the country, most of them gasoline powered. Electrics and steamers had perhaps doubled in volume, but the inconvenience of recharging an electric car in a country wherein fewer than ten percent of households had electricity — most of which were in cities with high-density housing and no garages or off-street parking — made them unattractive despite their instant usability. Steam engines were handicapped by the need to spend at least a quarter of an hour getting up steam. Gasoline cars, despite the dangerous necessity of hand-cranking their engines to get them started, simply overwhelmed their rivals, especially after Charles Kettering’s development of the electric starter in 1912.
The electric-car industry was essentially finished by 1915, the steam car by 1920. Yes, there were still a few players, but the famous Stanley concern finally closed in 1925, Abner Doble gave up on his highly perfected steamer in 1931, and Detroit Electric had completely faded away by 1941. Because they are quiet and pollution free, electric cars have always had boosters, but they remained a dead issue through the twentieth century despite attempts to mandate their manufacture and use. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on essentially futile government efforts to impose electric vehicles on unwilling consumers. Yet here we are today with not one but two excellent Automobile of the Year electrics.
We decided to seek some examples of technologies that, like electrics of a century ago, were mature enough to have been commercially exploited but which, for good and sufficient reasons, were abandoned so far as automobiles are concerned. Is steam worth reconsidering in the light of modern metallurgy and the possibility of using extremely clean-burning, energy-dense fuel that doesn’t produce excessive air pollution? Bill Lear (father of the Learjet) thought so in the 1960s but failed to prove his conjecture. Is there potential for the very simple gas turbine, which produces more power per pound of installed weight than any other vehicular powerplant? Could internal-combustion engines benefit from reimagining their architecture, as Felix Wankel believed?
The generous help of two notable car collectors, Jay Leno and Peter Mullin, made it possible to go out on the road in past examples of each technology. The cars we tried were Leno’s 1910 White tourer, Mullin’s 1934 Voisin C27 Aérosport coupe, and the 1963 Ghia-built Chrysler gas-turbine coupe that Leno acquired not long ago, one of just nine remaining of the fifty-five prototypes and demonstrators made decades ago. Both men, thanks to California’s relaxed requirements for registering historical vehicles, keep the cars in their collections licensed, which meant that we could put them together on public roads. As Leno said as we cruised in the Chrysler turbine, just after he’d arrived from home in a Citroën DS: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t fool around, and I’m not interested in playing tax games. All of my cars are registered, and I can drive them any time I want.” Which is why after our drive he could go home in a Duesenberg roadster without consulting a team of lawyers. And why we could put all three vehicles together on public roads.
First to be fired up — literally — was the 103-year-old White. There is absolutely nothing electric on this machine, so the first step is igniting the pilot flame, which is accomplished with a match. Or at least, that’s how it was done in 1910. Leno used a piezoelectric igniter for a gas cooking range to create the spark that lit a flow of gasoline dripping from a petcock. There was a lot of open flame around the bottom of the car, but it seemed to be of no concern to the experienced steam-car user and was soon extinguished. Once firmly established, the pilot flame ignited a burner for the flash boiler, which is capable of superheating the steam to more than 700 degrees. A double-acting steam engine might be thought of as a “one-stroke” powerplant, in that every movement of the piston from one end of the cylinder to the other produces torque. In a two-stroke, every downstroke does, while in our common cars, power is produced only every fourth piston movement. If that sounds a little Rube Goldberg, well, it is.
Not as well known as the Stanley, White steam vehicles were far more sophisticated. Leno, who owns several of each make, notes that Stanleys were “like teakettles.” They boiled water, put the steam into the engine, and vented it to the atmosphere, necessitating a water-tank refill every fifty miles or so. Whites, almost from their inception, incorporated condensers to recover and recycle the water. Teddy Roosevelt may have been the first U.S. president to ride in a car, but William Howard Taft was the first to have White House motor vehicles, and he favored his White. The first U.S. Army trucks were Whites. Leno noted that the reliability of the White was so good that there was a three-times-weekly White bus service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a three-day trip, but the scenery must have been wonderful in those relatively pollution-free days.
Clambering up into the huge White tourer, we were struck by its simplicity: a concentric ring inside the nearly horizontal steering wheel feeds superheated steam to the cylinders, and we moved off with almost no sound. The burner, boiler, and steam generation are all automated, with high-precision needle jets controlling fuel flow. It was typical of nineteenth-century engineering, complicated but extremely effective, with every parameter considered and mastered. Maximum speed is about 45 mph, but it is attained quite quickly and maintained in relative mechanical silence. One is aware of wind and tire noise but not of the big pistons surging back and forth. No cars of its era had good brakes, even by the standards of a Model A Ford, but with anticipation and the help of engine braking, it seemed easy to manage integration with traffic. At least if you are as skilled as Leno or his mechanic George Swift.
If the steam engine was a British invention espoused by Stanley and White, the internal-combustion engine was a German idea quickly taken up by the rest of the world but not always appreciated. It was noisy, inefficient, often cantankerous, and frequently unreliable, so many attempts were made to tame its least agreeable characteristics while retaining its virtues. One such effort was made by Charles Yale Knight, an American who hated the valve noise of the first car he bought. He invented, developed, and patented an engine with two concentric sleeves, the outer running directly in the cylinder bore, the piston itself sliding in the inner sleeve. It took a series of small connecting rods to operate the sleeves, but the virtue of the design was near silence while it was operating, at the cost of high oil consumption and — when worn — clouds of oil smoke. The first car shown, in 1906, was known as the Silent Knight, and it led to several licensing deals for the system. The most important of these was with the British Daimler company, which spent a good deal of engineering effort to improve the initial design. The German Daimler firm was another European customer. One of its Mercedes-Knights ran in the 1913 Indianapolis 500, finishing in fifth place — after making just one pit stop and averaging a spectacular 20 mpg — despite the fact that its displacement and qualifying speed were well below that of all the other entrants.
Among the French licensees was Avions Voisin, which was converting its wartime manufacture of military airplanes to civilian products, including factory-built housing, motor bicycles, and cars. Gabriel Voisin acquired a Morane prototype car that included a Knight-patent engine, and because he appreciated its silence and efficiency, Voisin kept that technology for all the cars he made until losing his company in the 1930s. The key to the Knight engines was the total elimination of springs. In modern terms, it was a desmodromic unit, valves (which were simple ports in the sleeves) being opened and closed by positive mechanical action.
The car we drove was from the Mullin Automotive Museum, whose ongoing Voisin exhibit was to close in April. One of only two C27 chassis ever made, it has a gorgeous body with a lavish Art Deco interior, first shown in Madrid in 1934. It may have been the best-looking of our three cars, but it was hard to start, ran poorly, and was really harsh-riding, something alien to Gabriel Voisin’s normal philosophy of putting passenger comfort ahead of all other considerations. What our little excursion told us is that, like the nutating trochoid in Wankel’s engine, sleeve valves are, for all their interest long ago, not worth the trouble today. The highest specific power ever achieved in piston aircraft engines was with a 1940s supercharged, sleeve-valve Napier Sabre, a 24-cylinder monstrosity of complexity that made gas turbines so attractive in aeronautics, allowing twin-engine airplanes to safely carry 300-plus people across vast stretches of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.
Which brings us to the impressive anticlimax of the Chrysler gas-turbine car. Yes, it whistles a bit, like a jet plane taxiing out for takeoff, but in every other respect, save the charmingly overdone styling, it is exactly like other 1960s Mopar products. It’s a nice car and fits in today exactly as well as, say, a late ’50s Chrysler 300. Turbines rule in aviation. Were racing sanctioners not so stubborn, turbines would certainly rule there as well, even though none of the turbine-powered cars fielded by Granatelli and Lotus in the late ’60s were quite durable enough to win the Indy 500.
The most impressive of the three technologies we tried was the oldest, the steam engine. It is quite easy to see that, had steam been developed and benefited from the advantages of mass production, it would be highly satisfactory now. But our conclusion, after all this, is that the scheme Jaguar proposed less than three years ago — with its C-X75 gas-turbine, current-generator, electric-final-drive concept car — is the way to go. Electricity has come back from the dead; the Tesla Model S is one of the finest automobiles any of us at Automobile Magazine has ever driven, and General Motors’ Volt — carrying its own gasoline-engine charging station with it wherever it goes — allays all the concerns anyone might have about range anxiety. Adding a simple ceramic gas turbine to generate the juice would satisfy all the requirements of a new paradigm for personal cars, thereby eliminating the “lock-in” that has kept us all with QWERTY keyboards and small-block V-8s when there’s something better available.
No explosions. No reciprocating parts. No gearchanging, whether by driver or an automaton. No noise. Simple maintenance. Simple operation. A brilliant future, thanks to a wonderful past. We can hardly wait.