Recollections of my meetings with Abner Doble in 1930
As recounted to Bill Lloyd on 13 - 19 September, 1999
My first glimpse of Abner Doble and E-24
I was born on 8th July, 1911 in Auckland, New Zealand. As a young lad in the 1920’s I had a keen interest in steam cars and had read of the legendary cars manufactured by Abner Doble in San Francisco. One day about 1930 I was greatly surprised to see one of these cars in Auckland city. It was parked on the northern side of Vulcan Lane off Queen street, just a stone’s throw from where I occasionally helped my father in his accountancy practice. I asked if he could photograph the car for me using his quarter plate camera and he did this on two different days with the car in the same place on both occasions. I often saw the car in the same area and in the same parking spot over several months. It was a pale yellow coupé with black mudguards and I noticed that the paint was blistered in a circular patch on the rear part of the front bonnet. The license plate was 8-341 and on another occasion 171031. The right hand window was partly down and a spectator once reached in and blew the horn. I was immediately interested in the instruments and noticed the steam pressure was reading 600 psi on a small gauge. I don’t remember the exact colour of the car interior but I do recall that the seat leather wasn’t black. To find out more about the car I got in touch with my cousin Charlie Jonas who was a mattress manufacturer with an office in Lorne street. He had built a small model steam locomotive and was active in the model engineering society. Doble attended an exhibition of this society and there is a photo of Mrs. Doble beside my cousin’s locomotive. He told me that Abner Doble was in New Zealand to supervise a joint venture with A&G Price at Thames for the manufacture of steam buses for the Auckland Transport Board and the White bus company at Thames. He also thought that Doble was importing the fuel for his car. It wasn’t running on petrol. It had a very distinctive and seductive odour of oil and steam that only a steam car can have. I believe it was running on diesel oil which was very difficult to get in those days. It was proposed to run the buses on diesel, which was much cheaper than petrol.
Doble’s car E-24 was parked in a side road in the busiest part of Auckland and usually attracted a lot of attention. I always had a close look at the car whenever I could and on one occasion I saw a tall and distinguished looking gentleman getting into it. He had a fair complexion and was neatly dressed in city clothes with a felt hat. He was noticeably stooped for a young man of about 35 and I immediately noticed a conspicuous and rather horrible scar that ran diagonally down one side of his face. It came from eye level down to his jaw and looked like a bad piece of facial surgery that hadn’t been stitched. It was particularly noticeable on his rather pallid features. There were several theories - a far fetched one that it came from a sword duel but the more likely explanation subsequently given in an article in Light Steam Power was that it arose from a boiler explosion. I am a pianist myself and instinctively look at a person’s hands when I first meet them. I noticed that his hands were unmarked, not the hands of a manual worker. He had the hands of a musician rather than a manual engineer. I would have liked to speak to him but was only about 19 at the time and was too shy to approach him directly. Fortunately the opportunity arrived by accident a little later. On this first occasion I watched as he got into the car and I heard a soft, deep rumble as the burner ignited. A faint blue haze came away from under the car and left a delightful odour of steam, oil and flue gases. The car moved off silently, except that when it was about 20 feet away there was a sudden “crack” like the knock of a hammer on metal. Neither my father nor I knew what this was at the time but I now realise that this was one of the high pressure relief valves discharging condensed water from the cylinders back to the water tank. I watched with my father as the car moved away in almost total silence. I had just had my first glimpse of one of the most famous engineers of the steam age.
Chauffeured by Abner Doble
A little later I had the opportunity of meeting Abner Doble in person and riding in his car. I was in a garage in Chapel Square in Auckland city to see a home built steam car with a Locomobile engine owned by “Steam” Stewart. H.H. Stewart had been a joint agent with the Treloar Milking Machine Co which had been the sole or primary agents for the Stanley Company some years before. Stewart also had some connection with the Doble/Price venture and had received around £750.00 in commission for introducing Doble to Prices. I was chatting to Mr. Stewart and Jim Lawler the garage owner in the enclosed garage office when Abner Doble wandered in. He had parked his car in the street outside the garage and was apparently expecting to meet Stewart there because he said to him “I want to make an appointment with you for lunch.” After a little discussion, Stewart introduced me to the first American I had ever met in the flesh. I noticed his accent but nothing otherwise remarkable about his voice. It was average, unhurried but business like. He was neatly dressed in a business suit with his felt hat and was smoking a cigarette in a short holder, something I hadn’t seen before. He and Stewart spoke on first name terms and when Abner was about to leave I took an indirect approach and hurriedly asked Stewart “Do you think he’d give me a lift?” “Give him a ride!” said Stewart in a rather obliging tone, possibly using the opportunity as a convenient way of removing an over-enthusiastic teenager from the office. Doble immediately agreed and we walked out towards the car. But before we got there he stopped to look at the experimental steam chassis that Stewart had built and which was being stored in the garage. “I like the idea of your single spoked steering wheel!” he joked at the hasty construction. As I got into the right hand side of his left hand drive car I noticed a small white wire haired terrier occupying the shelf behind the single front seat. These were fashionable at the time and someone had given it to him as a present. My next impression as I lowered myself onto the single bench seat was something of a surprise when the cushion hissed at me. I had never seen a pneumatic cushion before. He switched on and we turned around. He had been parked on the “wrong” or right hand side of the road. The car moved to the end of the short Chapel Square with the Catholic church on our right and we turned left into Wyndham street, then eastwards down to Queen street where he turned right. He stopped some distance up Queen Street, on the eastern side, directly in front of what was then the Auckland Savings Bank and said “I’ll be here for about 10 minutes.” He then reached across me to shut the passenger’s window to prevent the dog from escaping and excused himself with the comment “Just so he won’t elude you.” I definitely remember him using the elegant expression “elude”. He went into the bank leaving me and the dog in charge of this remarkable machine. I was careful not to touch anything. He returned from the bank and we proceed up Queen street to the Wellesley street intersection, occupied by the traffic officer since there were no traffic lights at the time. Abner leaned across me again and said to the officer “Can I go right round?” There was no reply but we were waved around and he made a complete U-turn at the intersection, going around the officer. “You’ve got a car to be proud of” I remarked as we gathered speed. “Oh yes, it’s a fine car” he answered with justifiable pride. I was a bit shy and asked what I feared might have been a silly question. “Can you drive with the hand brake on?” “Oh no, it’s just like a locomotive” he answered immediately. But then he hesitated a moment and as an afterthought said “Oh yes you could ..” and added something that now escapes me. It might have been “but it wouldn’t be desirable.” We turned right into Quay street and he put on a short turn of speed along by the wharves. There was a distinct and effortless surge of power which was most impressive, even though the conditions were too restrictive for anything more than about 40 mph. He switched off the burner and said “We’re coasting now.” Then a moment later he asked “How much further can I take you?” When I replied that I was going to Upper Queen street he was somewhat surprised and quickly exclaimed “We’re getting further from Upper Queen street every moment!” but I was so taken with the unique experience that I just said “No, just keep going.” We stopped a few moments later outside the Auckland premises of A&G Price on the left, about half a mile along Quay street. As we pulled up he said “I shall be here for about an hour” and extended his hand in a courteous manner which indicated that my unique journey was at an end. “Pleased to have met you Mr. Jonas” were his last words as he opened the door and stepped out. I walked back to the Baptist Tabernacle where I had left my father’s car or my push bike after my organ practice from 8 to 9 am. Not only had I willingly traveled well out of my way but my father was less than pleased to hear that I had also broken an appointment he had arranged for me with a potential employer, just when the depression was beginning to bite. But any pangs of conscience were more than adequately recompensed. At last I had had my first ride in a steam car and in all the world there was no greater steam car than the Doble and I had been chauffeured by none other than the deity Abner Doble himself. It was like meeting the almighty. I felt like the King of England had taken me on a tour of Buckingham Palace.
My last meeting with Abner Doble
I met Abner Doble on one other occasion. Possibly around August, 1930 my mother saw in the Table Talk column of the New Zealand Herald that Mr. and Mrs. Doble were now staying at the Grand Hotel in Prince’s street near the university. I telephoned the hotel and asked to speak with Mr. Doble. I was put through to him and asked if I might come down to see him. He agreed and when I asked when could I come he replied “Right now.” I wasted no time in getting there and found him and his wife sitting in chairs on the steps approaching the front door. We had a pleasant conversation in which he mentioned that he didn’t like living in Auckland and preferred Thames. Thames is a much smaller town. In the same breath he mentioned that he enjoyed tennis. I recall asking him about the burner and he spoke about the venturi but I didn’t really follow because I had never seen one. I told him that I was hoping to make up a steam car from a Mobile engine that I had. “You’ll find it damn hard!” he replied. “What speed could I expect from it?” I asked him. “Oh, about 25 miles per hour.” He also suggested “Why don’t you go down to Hamilton and see Jim Trelor? He’s got a lot of junk!” He was alluding to Stanley material, for which he appeared to have little regard. I asked if he could lend me any information but he said “It’s all packed up.” He was very patient and gave me about 20 minutes to half an hour. Then he ended the interview with the words “How much more can I tell you because I propose to take my wife out for an airing?” I remember these exact words because I thought it was an unusual expression. His wife had sat patiently throughout our discussions, saying virtually nothing. I later heard from Stewart that she may not have been his wife. Her name may have been Alene. He mentioned that he was the hand brake on?” “Oh no, it’s just like a locomotive” he answered immediately. But then he hesitated a moment and as an afterthought said “Oh yes you could ..” and added something that now escapes me. It might have been “but it wouldn’t be desirable.” We turned right into Quay street and he put on a short turn of speed along by the wharves. There was a distinct and effortless surge of power which was most impressive, even though the conditions were too restrictive for anything more than about 40 mph. He switched off the burner and said “We’re coasting now.” Then a moment later he asked “How much further can I take you?” When I replied that I was going to Upper Queen street he was somewhat surprised and quickly exclaimed “We’re getting further from Upper Queen street every moment!” but I was so taken with the unique experience that I just said “No, just keep going.” We stopped a few moments later outside the Auckland premises of A&G Price on the left, about half a mile along Quay street. As we pulled up he said “I shall be here for about an hour” and extended his hand in a courteous manner which indicated that my unique journey was at an end. “Pleased to have met you Mr. Jonas” were his last words as he opened the door and stepped out. I walked back to the Baptist Tabernacle where I had left my father’s car or my push bike after my organ practice from 8 to 9 am. Not only had I willingly traveled well out of my way but my father was less than pleased to hear that I had also broken an appointment he had arranged for me with a potential employer, just when the depression was beginning to bite. But any pangs of conscience were more than adequately recompensed. At last I had had my first ride in a steam car and in all the world there was no greater steam car than the Doble and I had been chauffeured by none other than the deity Abner Doble himself. It was like meeting the almighty. I felt like the King of England had taken me on a tour of Buckingham Palace.
The Doble Steam Buses
Since my ride with Abner Doble, I have ridden in eight other steam vehicles including the buses. I had two rides on the buses, both on bus Number 10 as a fare paying passenger around Auckland. Once was to Point Chevalier and later along Mountain Road past the grammar school, which I had attended just a couple of years before. Only three complete bus units were built, all different in detail. The first was sold to the Auckland Transport Board, installed in a converted AEC bus as described and illustrated in the newspaper cutting. This was the only bus I rode in. They were all conversion units, although one had a special body built by Cousins & Cousins and ran the 70 or 80 miles from Auckland to Thames for about 3 months for the White company. I saw this one once on the road coming from Auckland as I was returning from Thames. This one had the auxiliary unit driven by a donkey engine behind the condenser rather than by shaft drive from the main engine. I once owned the complete power plant out of this Thames bus and sold it to a Mr Alexander in Sydney in 1948 or early 1949. I later went to Sydney on the Wanganella in 1949 to exchange a turbo booster unit from Number 10 bus for a White steam car engine. I can’t recall his name. He wrote to me about a pressure atomizing burner that he had designed and how he found it.
The number 10 bus appears in the newspaper photograph and is the one which had the most use. This was the first bus I saw. It had a forward driving control, half way over the boiler room. I first saw it in Commerce street in the city, coming in to its terminus and was impressed by the silence of the bus as it made a U-turn in Commerce street. Riding was equally smooth, with a faint sound from the exhaust but much quieter than the old AEC bus engine. It had that subtle and attractive odour of steam and oil. I later saw the Thames bus coming from Auckland toward Thames as I returned. This Thames bus was sold to the Thames Authority, which was separate from the Auckland Transport Board that owned the Number 10 bus. I later visited the Price works in Thames after the project had been terminated and took stereo photos of one of the chassis. Everything lay there for some time, until Price had a big clean up, possibly when they became Cable Price. Even Doble’s workshop and drawings were there.
There were some problems with the buses because they were under-powered except that the third one, the Thames bus, had a bigger boiler. It had an auxiliary engine to take some of the electrical load. Jo Bell said that this took too much steam. It went at 1,500 revs and sounded like a petrol engine working. I think it was a little compound V-engine. The failure of the project was a combination of the lack of performance and the depression. Fuel economy with Number 10 bus was said to have been about the same as conventional buses but with cheaper fuel.
The fate of the steam buses
The compensator came from the Number 10 bus unit and some other parts from this unit ended up in my Chev steam car. I don’t recall if the third unit, the Thames bus, had a compensator. The second unit was lying idle for about 9 years but no one bought it. I don’t know what happened to that second unit. A chap in Hamilton, a Mr. Grinter bought the Thames power unit and I bought it off him. This is the one I sold to Alexander without ever taking delivery of it. I bought it with the idea of reselling it. I paid about 90 pounds for it and only saw it in pieces in the railway yards. It was just the power unit. I think the engine of the third unit, the Thames bus, went to a museum in the UK because I got a letter from them about it.
“Bo” Bollond at Thames bought my Stanley about 1945 after I stripped a lot of stuff off it. He got Prices to put a bus engine into it. I don’t know what bus engine this was. Brian Rankine has this engine at the moment. Bollond might have got one separately from Prices. He is the one who cut the auxiliary unit in half. Sadly, he eventually committed suicide by gassing himself, I believe as a result of women trouble.
Jo Bell, one of the guys who was in charge of the mechanics on the bus project at Thames said he once had the use of Doble’s car (E-24) for a weekend. If the project had continued he would have made the control boxes. A relation of his appears in a group photograph of the works people. At Gary Summerhayes’ prompting I wrote 48 pages of memoirs of my steam car experiences for the Model Engineering Society, now the Steam Engine Society.
I rode in Doble E-13 once in Christchurch when Alec Gudsell had it and remember being most impressed at the way it went through thick sand on a sandy road, like a locomotive pulling up hill. Joe Bell, who had worked on the bus project, said there could have been a third Doble car brought in by a tourist but only briefly. He had seen the word “Doble” on the back of an electrician’s jacket.