It its lunch time, to short for detailed reflections on the strange times we live in or to pen another installment about the Great Depression and the auto industry. It does, however, provide just enough time to share some exciting developments and to provide a bit of food for thought.
These photos are of White built automobiles that utilized steam rather than gasoline for propulsion. The bottom one is purported to be the legendary “Whistlin’ Billy”, a famous race car in its day. Here we are a century later and the topic of alternative energy is still a hot button issue. This link is for a story about a proposed solar powered generating facility that was published by the Kingman Daily Miner. http://kingmandailyminer.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&subsectionID=1&articleID=32994
The primary difference between “then” and “now” is that in the America in the first decade of the 21st Century, common sense is as rare as snow in Phoenix in July. Today, we want electric gadgets, air conditioning, and all manner of conveniences but not the infrastructure that makes it possible.
We don’t want unsightly plants that generate energy from sun light. We can’t build transmission lines as they may disrupt the desert tortoise. We don’t want hydroelectric facilities and even give credence to “enlightened” and “intelligent” people who propose dismantling dams such as Glen Canyon. We don’t want to develop use of oil reserves in the US of A and then scream about our involvement in “wars for oil.”
A century ago much of the discussion about “alternative energy” usage centered on practicality and elevating the standard of living. Yes, much of this was done for profit and with the luxury of hindsight we see that a number of mistakes have been made.
Still, it is interesting to add historical perspective to the debate over global warming, alternative energy, and related topics. That brings us to the White steam powered cars.
During the infancy of the automobile it was the steam engine, and development of electric vehicles, that dominated discussion as well as initial advancements. A 1903 advertisement for the Jaxon put it this way, “Steam power is reliable and easy to understand.” Another company claimed that their electric vehicles were so easy to operate, “…even a child or women could drive this car.”
Ransom Olds first vehicles were “steamers.” The first Studebaker automobile was an electric designed by Thomas Edsion. White built vehicles were the first used in the White House motor pool. The Woods Dual Electric was an early hybrid – gasoline on the road, electric in the city. A Stanley set a new speed record of almost 150 miles per hour in 1906.
In the north east it was easier to find a place to charge batteries than buy gasoline. Devices to meet the needs of owners for steam as well as electric cars abounded.
Then, in 1912, Cadillac introduced a revolutionary device designed by Charles Kettering – the elctric starter. In an an instant everything changed.
The ever present danger of severe injury or death related to crank starting a vehicle was gone. There was no now longer a need to light the boiler in your car thirty minutes before driving and the owner was no longer constrained by limited amounts of water in the boiler.
Abner Doble overcame many of the obstacles associated with steam engines in the 1920s. His flash boiler system allowed for an operational head of steam in seconds and the revolutionary recovery system for water allowed for traveling distances measured in hundreds of miles.
Still, the car needed a burner. For all of its revolutionary advancements this alone deemed the car impractical as kerosene was burned at fourteen miles to the gallon. http://www.steamcar.net/doble.html
The consumer, not the oil company, brought about the demise of steam and electric vehicles. The oil companies merely supplied the bullet in the form of cheap oil and gasoline. It was the consumer that chose safety over danger and the severance of limitation that doomed the electric and steam car.
In the late 1930s, and throughout the early 1950s, Powell Crosley made valiant efforts to inject common sense and responsibility into American automobile purchases. With the ideal that it made little sense to cross a river with a battleship when a row boat would do as his foundation, Crosley introduced his diminutive little cars and station wagons. http://crosleyautoclub.com/
The cars were far from perfect. Corners were cut in the wrong places and as a result the cars quickly developed a reputation for poor engine longevity and brakes. Still, the concept was a sound one. As an inner city car that delivered near 40 miles per gallon the Crosley should have at least sparked honest debate about the logic of using a 4,000 vehicle with an eight cylinder engine to fetch groceries.
This leads us to another bit of historical inaccuracy in the “global warming” debate or lack thereof – old cars pollute more and are not fuel efficient.
How about a V8 powered Dodge truck, with rider, passenger and 500 pound payload that delivers more than 22 miles per gallon on the highway? That was 1956.
What about a 1922 Buick that, when properly tuned, passes emissions testing? Or a 1936 overdrive equipped Chrysler that delivers close to 24 miles per gallon and seats six?
As Americans we pride ourselves on independent thinker. Yet, we allow ourselves to be steered into programs such as “Cash for Clunkers” or seeing ownership of a Cadillac El Dorado with towering tail fins for our trips to church as a goal to aspire to.
Perhaps the time has come to again turn to common sense, step up to the plate, and look toward the future with excitement freed from the stampeding of hysteria. So, lets embrace our old cars, lets cruise Route 66 in a Rambler that delivers 30 miles per gallon or in a chrome laden behemoth with tail fins that cast long shadows, find us a nice hybrid or Crosley for use in town, and let the sun generate our electricity.