Lost Causes

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.

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