“Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity” - Léon Serpollet and the steam car

4 October 1858, the French pioneer of steam automobiles Léon Serpollet was born in Culoz in the Rhône-Alpes region.

“Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities.“ (L. Frank Baum)

A Gardner-Serpollet (steam) 5HP Double phaeton from 1900



The idea of constructing a self-propelled wagon is probably as old as the idea of the wheel itself. Whether the wheeled vehicle was driven by draft animals or human brawn didn’t make that much of a difference over the centuries, concept-wise, but the idea was there. “Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity”, Roger Bacon wrote in mid-13th century, naturally, Leonardo da Vinci launched a few designs and during the 17th century, the Dutch scientist Simon Stevin constructed something workable known as a land yacht and a few decades later a German smith from Nuremberg, not Ingolstadt, mind you, designed a completely clockwork-powered, horseless carriage that ran at about 1 mph all by itself. The invention of workable steam engines during the 18th century meant the breakthrough for self-propelled cars as envisioned by Roger Bacon, not only on rails but on roads as well. Steam-powered cars were the first true automobiles, decades before Carl Benz built his Patent-Motorwagen, propelled by an internal combustion engine, in 1886. A first steam car was presented to the public in Paris by Nicholas Cugnot as early as 1769, Richard Trevithick did not only sent the first full-scale working railway steam locomotive on its way but designed the London Steam Carriage that ran through the streets of London to Paddington and back via Islington in 1803, with seven or eight passengers, at a speed of up to 9 mph, and even though Trevithick’s venture ended in a financial disaster, progress was not to be stopped, not during the 19th century and its faith in technology. At least not in the long run. Several accidents and lobbyism of the horse-driven transportation industry, backed up by the conservative rural Squirearchy, virtually meant the end of steam-powered automotive innovation in Great Britain by the 1840s. The next generation of workable concepts were put on the road in France.



A Serpollet steam tricycle, license-build later as Peugeot Type 1 in 1886




While the Locomotive Act passed in 1865 required self-propelled vehicles on British public roads to be preceded by a man walking ahead, waving a red flag and blowing a horn, a law effective until 1896, Amédée Bollée from Le Mans drove what is considered to be the first modern automobile, steam-powered “l'Obéissante“, the obedient one, from his home town to Paris in 18 hours. “L'Obéissante’s“ successor “La Mancelle”, the one from Le Mans, became the first car produced in series in 1878. At the same time, 20-years old Léon Serpollet perfected an oil-fired boiler that became the core for a single-cylinder engine with poppet valves and crank cases, the propulsion for a small steam tricycle that became the first Peugeot car ever made. Serpollet’s permit to drive his tricycle through the streets of Paris was probably the world’s first driving licence, even though he was required to obtain an official one later, when driving licenses became mandatory for operating cars on public roads, and allegedly, Serpollet lost his for speeding a few weeks later. He had a heart for racing anyway and became the first driver to break the Belgian Jenatzy’s speed record of 1899 in 1902 in his steam-powered Œuf de Pâques (Easter Egg), going at 75 mph along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, a record that held for just half a year. In August, Vanderbilt broke it with his IC-powered “Mors” and only one other time would a steam-powered vehicle hold a landspeed record when Fred Marriott went over 200 km/h (124 mph) in his “Stanley Rocket“ in Daytona Beach in 1906. But the time of steam-powered automobiles had come anyway.


Serpollet and his Œuf de Pâques in 1902


When the Doble Brothers in the US nearly had perfected steam cars during the 1920s, petrol engines had started their triumphal march long since and displaced steam engines as well as electric vehicles. The reasons are not quite clear, since steam and electricity had certain advantages over internal combustion methods along with disadvantages all automobiles shared. However, steam-driven vehicles were relegated to a niche existence, mostly as commercial vehicles, traction engines, lorries, busses, tractors and steam rollers, until the 1950s, when their production was finally discontinued. Ironically enough, Léon Serpollet took a lad along for a ride in his steam-powered tricycle back in 1891 and a spark might have jumped across. The young man’s name was Louis Renault and when they met again a couple of years later, he and his brothers already had established an up- and coming automobile manufacturing firm. One that never thought about producing a steam car.

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The image of the Gardner-Serpollet (steam) 5HP Double phaeton from 1900 was taken by Krzysztof Marek Wlodarczyk in 2010 and found on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardner-Serpollet#/media/File:Gardner-Serpollet_(steam)_5HP_Double_phaeton_from_1900.JPG