Reader Question: External Combustion?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Steve asks: You mentioned in your review of the electric VW Golf that some people will wait 25-30 minutes for a “fast” charge. Reading that, my mind went on a tangent about why steamers never caught on; it took 20-25 minutes to get them started.

I remember when I was a boy in the ’60s reading about someone who was trying to bring steamers back and had reduced the start/ready-to-go time to under five minutes. The reason gasoline won in the market place between electric and steam was that you could get in them immediately and go and go a long range.

If my memory serves, one argument in favor of steamers was that they were less polluting than the IC engines. With all of the emissions “fatwas” over the years, I’m wondering if it’s still true that external combustion engines are less polluting than IC engines. In terms of efficiency (torque, horsepower, etc.) they seemed better than gasoline engines.  In all this talk about low emission vehicles, I’ve never heard anyone mention external combustion engines.

I realize that this email isn’t a question per se, just the ruminations of an older guy who once read about the competition between electric, steam, and gasoline automotive power. File this note  away, and if you’re ever looking for a column idea during a slow period, write about it.BTW, I just remembered that I read about the steamers in my Dad’s American Legion magazine. It always had an article in every issue about interesting stuff like you’d find in Popular Mechanics or Popular Science.

My reply: I’ve actually driven a Stanley Steamer (they had one up at the Hemmings Motor News museum; I was there as a guest, years ago). As you say, the main functional problem with external combustion is analogous to the problem with non-combustion (i.e., electric cars)… i.e., the wait.

There would need to be a huge advantage to steam – or electric – power to compensate for the delay; the not being able to just get in and go, immediately. In neither case does such a compensatory factor exist. This is why steam-powered cars exist only in museums – and it’s why electric cars would only exist as very low-volume, specialty cars for those willing to pay a premium for electric power were it not for the “zero emissions” mandates and subsidies.

Neither steam nor electric-powered vehicles have compelling enough other advantages to overcome their deficits.

This isn’t to say they’re not intriguing; they are – very much so. But that is neither here nor there as regards their practicality or their economics.

I think a steam-powered vehicle would be fun to have as a toy. And I think the same about electric cars – especially if I don’t have to pay for them!

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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