From Reality to Fantasy (Part 4): Steam Cars

This video features my favorite steam car and the one I’m using in my new book. Go to the 11:00 mark or thereabouts if you want to see the car being driven while getting blasted with facts about it:

As a fantasy and steampunk writer, I spend hours a day avoiding mundane reality by plunging into the fictional worlds I create. Especially for Americans like myself, cars are boring. We have to have them to survive. They’re common. They’re a chore. A way to get to work. Something that annoys you when it breaks and robs you of free time with its constant need for maintenance, washing, and fuel stops. Where I come from, there are no taxis, no subways, and no other convenient ways to get around (one reason I live in Taiwan now).

Generally, I would rather write about riding on horseback or taking a hansom cab than hear more about the drudgery of commuting by car. Generally.

How can cars be interesting artifacts for our fiction, something that contributes to the story, like the Batmobile? The Batmobile adds flavor to Batman’s life and world. It characterizes the hero, somewhat. It can be part of the plot. But I can think of another car that is much more important to characterization in fiction.

How about the big, expensive car from The Great Gatsby? It is vital to the plot, characterizes its owner, and is right there at the climax of the story.

Gatsby’s car was a Rolls-Royce according to the book (possibly a Phantom) or a 1932 Duesenburg if you saw the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version. Either way, this is not the mundane working man’s SUV of today. I think we can do better than Gatsby, though. But it takes a little digging into history.

Think about this: CD-ROMs. Our society went from tape-type media to completely digital so quickly that 200 years from now the time of CDs will be so short writers may not even remember they existed at all. People may be inclined to think that as soon as computers came along, everything was transferred digitally.

Cars are the same way. Many may think steam power ruled the railroads and cars were an immediate child of internal combustion principles. But there was a brief and glorious pocket of time when internal combustion engines and steam-powered automotive engines were in competition.

It’s easy to forget steam cars, and the mechanics of steam are so alien to everything we know about automobiles that there are perilously few of them left to study. Restoring them, making them, and running them is a lost art in danger of extinction.

The best resource for steam cars is Jay Leno’s Garage. His website and Youtube channel are a one-stop shop to see steam engines and steam-powered devices in action and as shiny as if we had gone back in time. I have spent a lot of time with Mr. Leno as my teacher, and I’ve selected two that I think will have you combing through for more.

This video is about the most advanced steam car ever built:

In a new novel I’m working on, the heroes’ steam car is essential to the story. It will add to the plot, not just the flavor of the piece.

How a steam car affect plot?

1. Steam cars require water as well as fuel to run. Depending on whether or not the car is based on the Stanley (no condenser) or the White (condenser) and depending on the temperature, you may find yourself stuck because you’ve run out of water. This is not the same as running out of fuel, because you can get water from a well, pump, or stream and get going again. A sortie into the woods might be required, but you don’t need a fuel station.

2. Steam cars can’t overheat in the way other cars can. Heat is good. It makes the steam generator work better. This could allow the good guys to outrun or outpace the bad guys if they are using a different engine, like early internal combustion engines.

3. Steam cars are basically silent, steam whistle aside. They run incredibly quietly, meaning you can creep around in one somewhat, driving in an area where you aren’t supposed to be without rousing the whole neighborhood.

4. Steam cars take time to get going. The earlier the model, the truer this is. Without an electric starter, your characters can’t just run to the car, close and lock the doors, and drive away from danger. It takes time for the steam generator to get the steam up to pressure and temperature. Consider that this means your getaway could be slower than on horseback, but, and this is a big but, once you can get away, you can flee faster and farther. It also means you might have to hold off the bad guys for ten minutes until the car is ready to crash through the carriage house doors.

5. The throttle on steam cars is a second wheel of smaller diameter than the steering wheel, stacked with it. So you control the throttle with your hands the same way you steer. You can lock the accelerator open, without propping an umbrella against the gas pedal or something.

6. You can create a blinding cloud of steam behind the car by pulling a lever.

These are quirks to take advantage of if you want a car chase like no one has thought of before. You can put characters in some very original situations with steam cars. Think of all the plot situations you can create just by knowing a few basics of this antiquated but charming form of transportation.

Just don’t mention your driver shifting gears: steam produces so much torque you don’t need a transmission. It’s direct drive.

A lot of early cars (and bicycles) used acetylene headlights (no electricity obviously), a lighting technology that I think deserves its own post with my other posts on lighting. So as you watch these videos, if you are curious about the beautiful headlights on these cars, stay tuned for how that works. It’s basically fire from rocks and water, a beautiful bit of practical chemistry.

Keep up with this series for more history that can spark off ideas for your creative writing.

-Bradley Verdell

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