Back in the early days of the automobile, aka the horseless carriage, the pioneers of car building were still figuring out a lot of things. From how to steer to where to put the seats and even how to power it, there was no set formula for designing a car. Internal combustion engines were noisy, smelly, unreliable, and hard to start at the beginning of the 20th century. There were alternatives, and in fact only a little more than one-fifth of American cars at the turn of the century were gas-powered. Both electric and external-combustion (steam) cars remained competitive on America’s roads until things like increased reliability, the electric starter, and the mass-produced Ford Model T allowed gasoline to eventually win out.
A total of 10 such alternative early motorcars sold at RM Sotheby’s annual Hershey auction October 10–11: five steam cars and five electrics. With EVs coming back into fashion, it makes sense that there would be renewed interest in early electrics, but steam clearly still has its fans considering that the most expensive vehicle of the group was a $170,500 Stanley.
Below is a breakdown of these early 20th-century treats, many of which you may have never heard of before.
Detroit Electric was the most prolific and the most enduring of the early electric cars, with a production span of over 30 years and up to a few thousand cars built annually right there in, you guessed it, Detroit, Michigan. Detroit Electric stayed around even as gas got cheaper, internal combustion engines got better, and cheap Fords took over American roads, and the cleaner, easier-to-use cars mainly appealed to city dwellers and women. The company was an early victim of the Great Depression and went into receivership not long after the stock market crashed, but it was purchased and kept on running until the start of World War II. This car was represented as a post-bankruptcy rebuild by Detroit Electric’s next owners and shipped to a customer in Ohio in 1932.
If you’re familiar with early automobiles, you may have heard of Locomobile, the Bridgeport, Connecticut, carmaker that operated from the turn of the century until 1929. Less well known is the Mobile, which arose out of a conflict between Locomobile’s two founders, asphalt magnate Amzi L. Barber and publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine (yes, that Cosmopolitan) John B. Walker. When the two parted ways, Walker sold his share in Locomobile and began building steam cars under the name Mobile.
Only a few hundred Mobiles were built before the company closed its doors, and Locomobile moved from steam cars to gas in 1901. More than a century on, there aren’t many Mobiles left out there. This one is a Dos-à-Dos (French for “back to back”) model, and one look at the seating arrangement makes it clear why Mobile called it that.
New England’s Pope Manufacturing Company was one of the giants of early automobile production, building bicycles (including Columbia bicycles, which are still produced today), motorcycles, and sewing machines, in addition to motorcars of various shapes and sizes. Pope went bankrupt by 1915, however, and automobile production ceased.
Pope-Waverley was just one of the companies that fell under the Pope empire that also included the Pope-Hartford, Pope-Tribune, and Pope-Toledo. The Pope-Waverley is unusual, relative to the other Popes, in that it is an electric, and the small runabout first resulted from a partnership between the American Electric Vehicle Company of Chicago and the Indiana Bicycle Company. The Chelsea runabouts like this one were the cheaper models in the range and originally had a single electric motor good for about 3 hp. This one has been restored with a more modern 12-volt, five-battery setup.
Back when the auto industry first got going, New England was right up there with the Midwest with dozens of carmakers churning out horseless carriages, mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Grout was one of them. The Grout brothers of Orange, Massachusetts, were the sons of a sewing machine manufacturer and experimented with both gas and steam engines before settling on steam and introducing their first motorcar right at the turn of the century. In 1904, Grout switched back to gasoline engines but only lasted until 1912, and today Grouts are extremely rare regardless of powertrain. This one has been restored and would stand out even at a gathering of other steam cars.
RM’s catalog sums up the Rauch & Lang JX-6 nicely, calling it “the Cadillac of electric cars.” The coolest thing about it, though, is that it is a “Dual Control” version. You can be a back-seat driver, literally, since there is a set of controls in the front and another in the rear, along with two tillers for steering that both fold away when you’re not using them.
Rauch and Lang were two Cleveland carriage builders who first started building electric cars under license in 1903 before building one of their own design a couple of years later. In 1915, they merged the company with the makers of the Baker Electric but still sold cars under the Rauch & Lang name. R&L also assembled the famous Owen Magnetic electric series hybrid from 1916–19 in Cleveland.
White was yet another Cleveland carmaker from the turn of the century, and it cranked out more steam cars than almost anybody. It was also one of several carmakers that started out as a sewing machine company, and the founder’s sons are the ones who took White into car building.
Whites were more complex, and as a result they were more expensive than most steam cars. You could even say they were fit for a king, or at least a head of state, as William Howard Taft’s steam car served as the very first Presidential Limousine.
Milburn of Toledo, Ohio, was originally a wagon manufacturer that came relatively late to the electric motorcar game in 1914, but it distinguished itself with a design for battery packs placed on rollers, which allowed for a quick change to fresh batteries as an alternative to a long, tedious recharge.
Milburn sold quite a few electrics. President Woodrow Wilson and the Secret Service even used one, but production only lasted until 1923 and the factory was sold to GM. The car’s claimed range is 60 miles, which is more than most people’s commute, but with a top speed of 19 mph you’re probably better off riding your bike to work.
Even by 1915, there was no “right” way to arrange a car’s layout and controls, and this car has just one of the many weird setups seen on early motorcars. The driver actually sits in the back, while passengers (hopefully short ones) sit in the folding rear-facing front seats and try not to be too distracting.
The 60-series was Stanley’s lower-powered and lower-priced model from 1910–14 and offered 10 steamy horses for the pre-World War motorist. This Model 63 was restored by a well-known restorer in the steam hobby in the 2000s and received both a new boiler and new kerosene fuel tank more recently. While 88 grand for this Toy Tonneau isn’t exactly toy money, it’s a bargain compared to the $134,750 it sold for in Amelia Island six years ago.
Built in Cleveland, Rauch & Langs were some of the nicest and most expensive electrics on the market in their day, and RM’s catalog quotes a 1909 ad that touts it to be “as cozy and luxurious as any woman would have it, and as able and efficient as any man would demand it to be.” The car also boasted Exide (aka “Excellent Oxide”) batteries, electric brakes, and a key for the control handle to prevent theft.
This one has been completely restored, and while those Exide batteries sound cool, someone has cleverly replaced them with a more modern set of 12-volt batteries for ease of use.
The current land speed record is 760.343 miles per hour, set by a rocket car with two Rolls-Royce jet engines. Why am I bringing this up? Because in 1906, it was 127.66 mph and it was held not by a fire-spitting multi-cylinder gasoline car but by the steam-powered Rocket, built by the Stanley twins of Massachusetts. Building on that success, the Stanleys put the same 550-psi, 30-hp steam engine into their premier Model M, which could hit a more modest (but quick for the time) 70 mph. The Model M was expensive, and only a few dozen were built in 1908–09. Sadly, no original example is thought to survive, but a few like this one completed in the late 1970s have been built over the years from original parts.
So, are you Team Steam or Team Electric? Tell us in the Hagerty Forums below.