Before petrol cars triumphed, steam took its turn at setting the Land Speed Record. Over the Promenade des Anglais, at Nice, in 1902, a four-cylinder, single-acting Serpollet steam car clocked 75.06 mph. It took the driver Leon Serpollet another kilometre to pull up, though!
Serpollet was wedded to the steam
car from the start. First he raced them, then he
attacked the World Land Speed Record successfully
in one, and held it for a brief spell until the American
W. K. Vanderbilt driving a French Mors took it from
him later in 1902.
These first few years of motoring
history were witness to dramatic changes in the automotive
industry, the frenetic pace of technological innovation
arguably being the most rapid in the automobiles
As for the world land speed record, electric
powered cars held sway for six successful attempts
in two years, then steam had its brief success, and
then the petrol engine took over. Historians and
technicians still argue over the reasons for this,
but it is obvious that the reason for the defeat
of electricity was the still-unsolved problem of
finding a method of storing the current which would
give a reasonable range from base.
of steam were different, although there is a similarity
inasmuch as the steam car needs to collect water
just as the electric car needs power of another kind.
Imagine a time when, before making even a short journey,
you had to plan your water pickup points along the
The other problem besetting the steam car was
that it required time, up to 20 minutes in the early
days, to get up a head of steam. No doubt this question
would have been the subject of research if steam
cars had stayed the course. It was no worry to Serpollet,
however, because he could choose his own starting
time when he was ready, and in 1902 still had to
run one way only.
Electric cars had held unchallenged
sway in world land speed record attempts for the first
two years. Then Leon Serpollet and the wealthy Marquis
de Dion, also from France, both decided that electricity
had had its day, and the steam car was the answer. Serpollet, like many enthusiasts through the history
of motoring, was hampered by a lack of money,
but talked people into helping him in one way or another
and managed to keep going.
It is curious that there
was a gap of nearly three years before another attempt
was made on the rapidly rising record. Perhaps Serpollet's
financial problems were responsible, allied to a desire
to do something really dramatic. In this he certainly
succeeded, pushing the speed up by nearly 10 miles
an hour in one attempt. By this time the road near
Paris had become too rough and too short for the speeds
being reached, so Serpollet used the now famous Promenade
des Anglais at Nice.
He had already been successful
in racing, and took several of his best cars to Nice
in 1902. A contemporary report said the car looked
like a boat turned upside down. However funny it
looked he covered the kilometre in 29.8 seconds and
was credited with 75.06 miles an hour.