Reprinted from The Autocar, 14th June 1957.
To one small section of the thinking public, the principle of propelling a horseless carriage by means of a complex mechanical organ suffering continuous internal explosions has never appealed. When this miniority would go motoring, it prefers first to light one good fire, with a match (sometimes two, or even three matches). In the most recent of such devices, only some 40 seconds were required between, as it were, lighting the gas and hearing the kettle whistle. But in those more leisurely days at the turn of the century, a 40-minute preamble was quite acceptable.
Although the history of steam road vehicles goes back further in this country than in any other, the circumstances of their suppression by the stage-coach interests during the middle of the last century are widely known. Yet blind bias and petty jurisdiction, which also strangled the early developments of private explosion-engined vehicles, cannot account wholly for the lack of parrallel interest in steam as a prime mover. We never had a Serpollet, a Stanley or a White, and none of our native steamers were of sufficient merit to convince a suspicious automobilist that Messers. Carless, Capel's explosion mixture was better applied externally than swallowed through a carburettor.
Jack Crabtree's 1901 Lifu steamer is a mechanical coelacanth, a strange link in the motoring chain more valued for its rarity than for its efficacy. Limited boiler heating area and working pressure, plus excessive all-up weight, combine to make it slow; solid tyres and primitve steering would have set that limitation had the engine performed more vigourously. Yet it goes-and reached Brighton without trouble during last year's Emancipation Run-is strongly made, and has an archaic elegance about it which the coclacanth lacks.
A simple chassis of rivetted channel iron carries a four-seater touring body in wood, of whose maker there is no record. It is supported on wooden-spoked wheels with solid rubber tyres of diameters 2ft 6in (front) and 3ft (rear), and the front wheels are steered by a hinged tiller of almost unparalleled crudity. With the wheels straight ahead, the tiller lies across the chassis, so that left lock varies inversely with the magnitude of the driver's abdomen. It is highly reversible steering, making mountains out of molehills and craters out of potholes; imperfections in the road surface are best avoided.
Marine influence evident in the car's engineering stems from its island ancestry, for the first lifu steam engines were made at Cowes, Isle of Wight, and fitted in boats. Indeed, the Lower Avon Navigation Company still had a yacht tender with Lifu engine and fire-tube boiler.
The engine is a horizontal twin-cylinder compound unit, exhaust from the high-pressure cylinder passing to the larger diameter, low-pressure cylinder. For a special effort-as when restarting on a steep gradient with a full-load-the driver can admit high-pressure steam to both cylinders, but this supercharge so unbalances the Lifu that its motion becomes more up-and-down than forward. Mr Crabtree understandably refers to one of its control as the Desperation Lever.
A bronze casting contains the crankshaft and Stephenson box-type valve linkage, and on its cover is the message:
No.1 Lifu engine
Steam Car Co. (House's system) Ltd.
Built by T. Noakes and Sons
Final drive is taken by direct spur gears from the centre of the crankshaft to the differential unit, and the spur-type differential is of a peculiar design which, apparently, conveys greater torque to one wheel than to the other.
At the front is the boiler room, roofed in by a brass-fluted bonnet, and now fired by a Stanley burner which has replaced the original Lifu-made fitting. Ahead of this, above the dumb irons, is a rather stylish, horizontally tubed condenser. Unfortunately, the oil separator protecting the condenser from engine cylinder oil is unreliable, and, since oil in the boiler tubes would lead to trouble, the condenser is no longer used as such, at best of times it is only 25 per cent efficient. It exhausts to atmosphere through the largest rectangular-section pipe you ever saw, collecting smoke from the smoke box on its way.
Steam Cars are a boon to those who cannot master the hows and whens of gear changing: if you are one of those, the Lifu is the car for you. Although there are a couple of dozen or so cocks and taps dotted around the chassis, all seemingly containing something hot and wet at high pressure, driving controls are simple. There is, for instance, no clutch; neither a hand brake, the foot brake being lockable by kicking it sideways to engage with a ratchet quadrant on the frame. To the driver's right are a forward-and-reverse lever; the main steam cock (like a bathroom tap) which corresponds to a petrol car's throttle; a steam cock between boiler and low-pressure cylinder for use in conjuction with the Desperation Lever; a bypass control for the engine-driven water feed pump to the boiler (turned off to close the by-pass and feed the boiler); and a manual air-pump-very hard work too- for pressurizing the fuel reservoir.
On the floor are the Desperation Lever for direct high-pressure exhaust; a fuel cock to the main burners; a hand pump feeding water to the boiler; and, behind the footbrake pedal, another for the steam whistle. On the driver's side of the bulkhead are two try-cocks for double-checking the water level in the boiler, should the level glass fail; two cocks for cleaing and cleaning the gauge glass; another controlling the steam blower feed in the boiler flue. A double gauge records air pressure in the fuel reservoir (30 lb) and steam pressure in the boiler (up to 250 lb). Nothing more.
Starting,too, is simple. It is 10:30a.m., and we have a letter to post down the road. First, the boiler is topped up with water, and the pilot burner lit from a Calor gas torch, fed from a bottle kept beneath the driver's seat. Originally a methylated conflagration was set off within the boiler to get it started. At 10:35 a ten-gallon fuel reservoir, which is located beneath the front floor-boards, is topeed up and pumped by hand to 30 lb sq in. air pressure. At 10:45 the Calor gas torch is used to warm the main vapouriser jet, which at 10:50 is turned on.
If all is well, steam pressure will soon register, and after about a half-hour there should be 25lb on the gauge. Next, at 11:08, the smoke box lit (atop the boiler) is replaced and the blower should have been turned on to feed steam into the exhaust pipe to draw the fire; this we forgot to do. The 30 gallon water tank is filled, a small quantity of tannin fluid being added to prevent scaling within the boiler, and the displacement lubricator for the cylinders is topped up.
Blow-back...We Start Again
By 11:15 we are draining the cylinders of water and making an inverted atom cloud as they are blown through the steam; pressure has reached 120 lb sq in., and steam is seeping up between cushion and squab of the rear seat. A rear wheel is now jacked to allow the engine and running gear to be warmed and exercised, but at 11:19 there is a blow-back because we forgot to have the blower going to assist the exhaust draft. We re-light.
At 11:22 yjere is a sudden shower of oil and water beneath the Lifu, probably because a water seperator failed to prevent water entering the flue when the condenser overflowed. Bother. Nevertheless, by 11:40 the wheel jack is removed and we are ready to move off, after altogether 70 minutes of gathering apprehension. Before taking on passengers, however, a little fore-and-aft manoeuvering spreads the warmth a little more-and sometimes we must back up a little before the Lifu will consent go forwards.
To start from rest, the "bathroom tap" is gently unscrewed, steam enters the high-pressure cylinder, exhausts into the low-pressure cylinder-pfff...and we are off. A mechanical air-pump for the fuel tank and another pump for the boiler feed are driven direct by eccentrics on the rear-axle, so that the driver is relieved of those duties.
Few steam cars are quite as silent as many folk imagine; although work done in the engine cylinders is of a less violent nature than applies in the engine cylinders is of a less violent nature than applies with internal combustion engines, and there is no gear box to whine or crunch, the donkey-pumps nearly always rattle and often can be felt. Nevertheless, steamers are generally very quiet and smooth, and have the inestimatable virtue of providing maximum torque right from rest. A steam engine does not idle when the vehicle is stationary.
Perched high above terra firma aboard the Lifu, one has a commanding view over the hedges, private gardens and first-floor windows. On the move it has the gait and rumble of the true horseless carriage, the clop-clop of quadrupled hooves replaced by a light metallic jingle and the clank of pumps and valve gear. Gravel crunches and spins at a tangent from beneath the hard, unyielding rubber tyres, and there is a leisurely barn-door creaking of wooden wheel spokes in their dry fellies.
The car rolls easily on level ground at around 12-15 M.P.H., and can reach perhaps 18-20 M.P.H. if pressed; not for long, however, for the boiler pressure then falls steadily and one has to ease off while it recovers. Hills, likewise, are breath-taking for the Lifu, and long ones must be tackled at no more than a walking pace. In fine weather this provides an oppourtunity to sniff the many scents of the countryside, to study the bird life in the road side hedges, and to smoke or eat buns without stopping the vehicle. In wet weather one just becomes wetter and wetter, for there is no screen or hood.
At the end of it's working day, the Lifu has it burner extinguished and fuel supply cut off, but not for hours does it cease to gurgle as its pent-up heat energy is slowly dissipated into the atmosphere.
Water consumption is about one mile to the gallon, so that fairly frequent stops of some duration are necessary. Boiler fuel is consumed at the rate of about 5 M.P.G.
Fifty-six years ago therwe were many who were on familiar terms with steam power, then in wide use for many purposes, but who were cowed by the vagaries of the high-and low-tension ignitions and primitive carburation on explosion motors, and by the terrors of their clutches and gear operation. Such men had to choose between steam and the horse. An hour or so in preparation for a journey by steam was, in theory, as nothing compared to the endless feeding, watering and cleaning of horses, the maintenance of their stables and harness, the difficulties of parking them overnight in strange places, and in managing their fiery temperaments. Not, mind you, that a steam car is always lacking in fiery temperament.