The Big Car Database


1924 Doble Model E at the Henry Ford Museum

The Doble steam car was an American steam car maker from 1909 to 1931.

Its latter models of steam car, with fast firing boiler and electric start, were considered the pinnacle of steam car development The term "Doble steam car" comprises any of several makes of steam-powered automobile in the early 20th century, including Doble Detroit, Doble Steam Car, and Doble Automobile, severally called a "Doble" because of their founding by Abner Doble


There were four Doble brothers: Abner, William, John, and Warren. Their father became wealthy, patenting the Doble Pelton wheel. All were at one time associated with the automobile company, with Abner, John, and Warren as the leading lights.

Abner Doble built his first steam car between 1906 and 1909 while still in high school, with the assistance of his brothers. It was based on components salvaged from a wrecked White Motor Company steamer, driving a new engine of the Doble brothers' own design. It did not run particularly well, but it inspired the brothers to build two more prototypes in the following years. Abner moved to Massachusetts in 1910 to attend MIT, but dropped out after just one semester to work with his brothers on their steam cars.

Their third prototype, the Model B, led Abner to file patents for the innovations incorporated in it which included a steam condenser which enabled the water supply to last for as much as 1,500 miles (2,400 km), instead of the typical steam car's 20–50 miles (30–80 km). The Model B also protected the interior of the boiler from the common steam vehicle nuisances of corrosion and scale by mixing engine oil with feedwater.

While the Model B did not possess the convenience of an internal combustion engined vehicle, it attracted the attention of contemporary automobile trade magazines with the improvements it displayed over previous steam cars. The Model B was virtually silent compared to contemporary gasoline engines. It also possessed no clutch or transmission, which were superfluous due to the substantial torque produced by steam engines from 0 rpm. The Model B could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in just 15 seconds[citation needed] , whereas a Ford Model T of the period took 40 seconds to reach its top speed of 40–50 mph (64–80 km/h).


In 1915 Abner drove a Model B from Massachusetts to Detroit to seek investment. He managed to acquire the sum of $200,000, which he used to set up the General Engineering Company in Detroit. The Doble brothers at once began work on their Model C (also known as the Doble Detroit), which was planned to extend and expand upon the innovations pioneered in the Model B.

The Doble Detroit incorporated key ignition, doing away with the need for manual ignition of the boiler system. John Doble also constructed a flash boiler with rectangular casing in which atomized kerosene fuel was ignited with a spark plug, in a carburetor-type venturi and used forced draft provided by an electrically driven fan. This rapidly heated the feedwater contained in vertical grids of tubes welded to horizontal headers. The steam-raising part of the boiler was partitioned off by a wall of heat-resisting material jacketed with planished steel from a smaller compartment in which were similar grids of tubes for feedwater heating. There seem to have been at least two versions of this boiler, the first with the burner and combustion chamber at the bottom, the other with them at the top of the casing; this led to the subsequent counterflow monotube boiler arrangement. Boiler operation was fully electro-mechanically automated: the bottom of the boiler housed a metal tray with a row of quartz rods. As heat increased, the tray expanded, pushing the rods forward and shutting off the burner. As the system cooled, the quartz rods receded, engaging the burner.

The Detroit could start from cold in as little as 90 seconds. A two-cylinder double-acting uniflow engine was mounted under the floor driving the back axle; double slide valves were driven by Joy's valve gear. The car had only four controls — a steering wheel, a brake pedal, a trip pedal for variable cut-off and reversing, and a foot-operated throttle. The layout of the chassis put the boiler at the front end of the car under the hood, the engine and the rear axle forming an integrated unit. The even weight distribution and low center of gravity contributed much to the ride and handling of all Doble cars.

These improvements promised a steam car that would at last provide virtually all of the convenience associated with a conventional automobile, but with higher speed, simpler controls, and what was a virtually noiseless power plant. The only defect sometimes noted throughout the Doble car era was less than perfect braking, which was common in automobiles of all types before 1930. Typically, a car of 1920s only had two rear-mounted mechanical drum brakes, although those fitted to Dobles were of larger than usual proportions. Dobles achieved reliability by eliminating most of the mechanical items that tended to malfunction in conventional automobiles: they had no clutch, no transmission, no distributor, and no points. Later Doble steam cars often achieved several hundred thousand miles of use before a major mechanical service was necessary

The Doble Detroit caused a sensation at the 1917 New York Motor Show and over 5,000 deposits were received for the car, with deliveries scheduled to begin in early 1918. However, the Doble brothers had not entirely worked out various design and manufacturing issues, and although the car received good notices and several thousand advance orders were placed, very few were actually built, estimates ranging from 11 to as many as 80. Abner Doble blamed his company's production failure on the steel shortages caused by World War I, but the Doble Detroit was mechanically unsatisfactory. Those few customers who had received completed cars complained that they were sluggish and unpredictable, some even reversing when they should have gone forward. In addition, the Doble brothers were divided by Abner's insistence on taking credit for the company's technical achievements, and John Doble ended up suing Abner for patent infringement, whereupon Abner left Detroit for California.

John Doble died of lymphatic cancer at the age of 28 in 1921, and the surviving brothers reunited in Emeryville, California, setting up under the name of Doble Steam Motors. They managed to solve most of the remaining engineering problems and added even more innovations which increased the cars' acceleration and reliability.

Steam powered tanks

During WW1 Doble's Detroit steam motors were used in two prototype tanks. One was the Holt Manufacturing Company steam powered tank. This tank underwent trials in February 1918, but no further models were made. The other was a Steam Tank project by the Corps of Engineers. The Corp had created a successful flame-thrower in November 1917 and decided to mount it on a tank. Funding for the project was made by the Endicott and Johnson Shoe Company. The tank was similar in design to British heavy tanks of the period. It weighed 50-tons and was powered by two Doble steam engines.

Model D

The outcome was a complete redesign, the Model D of 1922. The uniflow engine, perceived as the root of the troubles with the Doble Detroit, gave place to a two-cylinder compound type, still with Joy's valve gear, but with piston valves. Another crucial development was a coiled monotube once-through vertically-mounted cylindrical boiler following the thinking behind the later version of the Detroit boiler, the most distinctive feature of which was the placing of the burner at the top of the boiler. This plus drastic insulation was meant to cause the hot gases to reside within the boiler casing for an optimum length of time giving up the maximum amount of heat to the feedwater. There was a forced draft burner at the top of the boiler and an exhaust flue at the bottom. The venturi was placed horizontally at the top of the vertical boiler barrel and oriented in such a way as to avoid direct contact with the monotube while inducing a swirl motion to the gases. It was thus a counterflow design with water entering the lower end of the coiled monotube and progressing upward toward the burner, which meant that the hottest gases gave superheat to the steam at the top of the coil whilst the cooler gases preheated oncoming the feedwater at the bottom. The distinctive hand operated "miniature steering wheel” rotating a throttle control rod that passed down the middle of the steering column can be observed in D2 which still exists (in the UK) at the present time. Photographic evidence shows that D1 retained the foot throttle pedal, so when the wheel throttle control was first applied is not clear. The latter probably gave more precise adjustment.

No more than five of the D model appear to have been built, if that. It is said that the two-cylinder compound engine sometimes gave difficulty in starting.

Model E

By 1922, the model E had been developed; this could be said to be the "classic" Doble, of which the most examples have survived. The initial monotube boiler design was perfected into the "American" type. This produced steam at a pressure of 750 psi (52 bar) and a temperature of 750 °F (400 °C). The tubing was formed from seamless cold drawn steel 575 ft 9 in (175 m) in total length, measuring 22 inches (560 mm) in diameter by 33 inches (840 mm) in height when coiled and assembled. The boiler was cold water tested to a pressure of 7,000 psi (480 bar). Two 2-cylinder compound cylinder blocks were in effect placed back-to-back as the basis for a 4-cylinder Woolf compound unit with high-pressure cylinders placed on the outside. A piston valve incorporating transfer ports was fitted between each high-pressure and low-pressure cylinder in an arrangement similar to Vauclain's balanced compound system used on a number of railway locomotives around 1900. Stephenson's valve gear replaced the previous Joy motion. This engine was used on all vehicles developed thereafter. Again, the car neither possessed nor needed a clutch or transmission, and due to the engine being integrated directly into the rear axle, it did not need a drive shaft either. Like all steam vehicles it could burn a variety of liquid fuels with a minimum of modification and was a noticeably clean running vehicle, its fuel being burned at high temperatures and low pressures, which produced very low pollution. Price ranged from $8,800 to $11,200 in 1923. The Model E ran on a 142-inch (3,600 mm) wheelbase. Twenty-four E's were made between 1922 and 1925 with a variety of body types from roadsters to limousines. Owners included Howard Hughes and the Maharajah of Bharatpur. One of the Hughes cars, a roadster engine number 20, is currently owned by Jay Leno. Abner Doble owned the last one – number 24.

The E cars still known be in existence are 9 (at the Ford museum), 10 (in the UK), 11 (in Australia), 13 (in New Zealand), 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22 (in the UK)[citation needed],23, and 24. Number 24 was acquired by McCulloch in the development of the Paxton steam car. Those known to be scrapped were 4, 5, 7, 15, and 16.

Model F

The main new feature was the boiler which formed the basis of later developments from 1930 onwards after the Doble company folded. Various other refinements were applied to individual cars such as a steam driven water feed pump. Seven model Fs were made, one of which was owned by Abner Doble's wife. They were car numbers 30 to 35, and 39. One of these, number 35, was a chassis only and sold to Oscar Henschel in Germany. Henschel's car was used by Hermann Göring and believed destroyed during the war. The car bodies were otherwise sedans or phaetons. The last F car number 39 was owned by Warren Doble. Engine number 32 was fitted into a Buick.

F30 and F34 still exist. The F30 is thought to be an E model engine and chassis. F34 in existence is said to be based on a Buick Series 60.

Engine numbers

Doble numbered all his engines sequentially:

  • Numbers 1 to 24 were Model Es
  • Numbers 25, 28, 29, 36 to 38 were Model H engines for buses. The later three were used for a locomotive, power plant, and truck.
  • Numbers 26, 27 were Model G engines for the Detroit Motorbus Company
  • Numbers 30–35, and 39 were Model Fs
  • Number 33 may have been used twice, once for the Model F and once for the A & G Price model H bus engine.

Typical performance

The 1924 model Doble Series E steam car could run for 1,500 miles (2,400 km) before its 24-gallon water tank needed to be refilled; even in freezing weather, it could be started from cold and move off within 30 seconds, and once fully warmed could be relied upon to reach speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour (140 km/h). In recent years Doble cars have been run at speeds approaching 120 mph (190 km/h), this without the benefits of streamlining, and a stripped down version of the Series E accelerated from 0 – 75 mph (121 km/h) in 10 seconds. Its fuel consumption, burning a variety of fuels (often kerosene), was competitive with automobiles of the day, and its ability to run in eerie silence apart from wind noise gave it a distinct edge. At 70 mph (110 km/h), there was little noticeable vibration, with the engine turning at around 900 rpm.

Contemporary Doble advertisements mentioned the lightness of the engine, which would lead customers to compare it favorably with heavier gasoline engines, but "engine" in a steam car usually refers solely to the expander unit, and does not take into account the complete power plant including boiler and ancillary equipment; on the other hand clutch and gearbox were not needed. Even so, the overall weight of a Series E was in excess of 5,000 pounds.

Doble Steam Motors Company

The first model E was sold in 1924, and Doble Steam Motors continued to manufacture steam-powered cars for the next seven years. In 1924 the State of California learned that Abner had helped to sell stock illegally in a desperate bid to raise money for the company, and though Abner was eventually acquitted on a technicality, the company folded during the ensuing legal struggle.

For all their innovations, Doble cars were hindered by two significant problems. The first was the price: the chassis alone sold for $9500, and adding a body virtually doubled that figure, making the car a luxury item in the 1920s. In 1922 the brothers had begun work on a lower cost model, projected to sell for less than $2000. This was named the Simplex, and was to be powered by four uniflow single-acting cylinders. One prototype is known to have been constructed, but the car never approached production stage. The other problem was Abner Doble himself, who was said to be such a perfectionist that he was seldom willing to stop tinkering and actually release an automobile for sale.

Doble made two further steam engines, designated models G and H. These were larger units and used experimentally in several buses. The first were tested in 1926 by International Harvester, using a Doble Model G engine, and the Detroit Motorbus Co, in a double decker, with a Doble Model H engine. A second Detroit bus had a Doble steam engine added in 1927 and at least one of them covered some 32,000 miles. In 1929 a Doble Model H was installed in a Yellow Coach for General Motors. This was followed by another Model F in a Fageol bus.

The company eventually went out of business in April 1931. The total number of cars built up to that date is difficult to determine; but as the numbers were consecutive, whatever the model, even with the solitary known Simplex, it seems unlikely that more than 32 were built from 1922.


Besler Brothers

George and William Besler of Davenport, Iowa, the sons of William George Besler, acquired much of Doble Steam Motors plant and patents. William also acquired a Doble E series Phaeton, engine number 14, from a Dr Mudd. This car was still in existence in 2010.

They undertook further development work with Abner Doble and created an interurban car, a railcar, and a steam aircraft. The brothers modified a Travel Air 2000 bi-plane by replacing its petrol engine with a steam engine. The plane was successfully test flown on 12 April 1933 at Oakland Municipal Airport, California. In 1936, the New Haven Railroad tested the Besler streamliner, a two-car steam railcar.

In the mid-1950s Henry J. Kaiser asked William Besler to convert his 1953 Kaiser Manhattan to steam. Besler completed this in either 1957 or 1958. The engine was described as a V4 single acting uniflow with trunk pistons. It was a cross compound with piston valves across the high-pressure heads. Kaiser apparently did not take the car back and left it with Besler.

In 1969, GM introduced two experimental steam-powered cars. One was the SE 124 based on a converted Chevrolet Chevelle, and the other was designated SE 101 based on the Pontiac Grand Prix. The SE 124 had its standard gasoline engine replaced with a 50 hp power Besler steam engine, using the 1920 Doble patents. The SE 101 had a GM-designed steam engine that had been developed in consultation with Besler.


Following the collapse of their company, Abner & Warren Doble traveled as steam power consultants. Abner first went to New Zealand in March 1930, where he worked for A & G Price Limited on the development of steam buses, while from 1932–1933 Warren was in Germany managing a contract for Henschel & Son of Kassel, who went on to build a variety of steam applications including a speedboat, cars, railcars, buses, and trucks. The exact numbers of vehicles built are difficult to determine. Henschel did build 10 articulated steam trucks for Deutsche Bahn railways as delivery trucks. Abner was involved in the development of a steam bus for the Auckland Transport Board while in New Zealand.

From 1931 to 1935, Abner worked with Sentinel Waggon Works of Shrewsbury, England. Several shunting locomotives (switchers) and an undetermined number of railcars were fitted with Doble/Sentinel machinery for sale to customers in Britain, France, Peru, and Paraguay. In 1937, Abner, writing in Autocar, stated that any new steam cars would have to be superlatively good to compete with gasoline powered cars of the day. He still considered it just possible with good management and a lot of money.

Ultimax Engine

Abner Doble's last consultancy was in the development of the Paxton Phoenix car, for the Paxton Engineering Division of McCulloch Motors Corporation, Los Angeles. The project was for a low-weight car built around a unique "torque box" chassis based on an aeronautical wing section. The Doble Ultimax steam unit was developed as one of two possible power plants, the other being an original design of two-stroke internal combustion engine. The Ultimax was designed to operate at a pressure of 2,000 PSI and 1,200 °F (649 °C) and actually ran at about 1,560 psi (107.6 bar) and 900 °F (482 °C) with a nominal boiler pressure of 2,000 psi (137.9 bar) and flow rate of 900 lb/hr. The engine was an ingenious three-crank tandem (or steeple) compound engine with three pairs of vertical single-acting cylinders arranged in such a way as to give a double-acting effect. Its sustained maximum power was 120 bhp (89 kW); peak power was 155 bhp (116 kW) but could not be held due to insufficient steam flow. The expected average water rate was 9 lb/hp/hr. The project was eventually dropped in 1954.

  • 1920–1939 Car Spotters Guide by Tad Burness, Motobooks International.