1899 Locomobile: From the Earliest Days of 'Cars'

2022-05-20 20:28:18 By : Ms. Coco Liu

Allyn Kilsheimer dreamed of owning a vehicle from the earliest days of automobiles. So he answered an ad for an 1899 Locomobile by a man in California who was looking for a good home for his little steam runabout.

The buyer and seller are both engineers, which was helpful during the getting-acquainted phase of the initial interview. Eventually, the seller decided that Kilsheimer passed muster and sold him the Locomobile.

The 1899 Locomobile was trucked cross-country to his Washington, D.C. home. He was ecstatic when the little steam car arrived.

The 1899 Locomobile is 4 feet, 5 inches wide, and 5 feet, 4 inches tall (to the top of the seat back). It is 7 feet, 3 inches long bumper-to-bumper — though it has no “bumpers.”

The entire rig is supported on a 57-inch wheelbase by white rubber 28x3-inch, four-ply tires mounted on 40-spoke nickel-plated bicycle wheels. With a full load of 5 gallons of water and 3 gallons of gasoline, the total weight is still less than 700 pounds.

The little steamer has a black wooden Stanhope body with a spindle seat. On either end of the dashboard are vertical slots for the reins controlling a horse to pass through, evidence that the body was initially made for use as a horse-drawn carriage.

Once Kilsheimer had possession of the car, he corresponded with the previous owner in an attempt to learn how to operate the five wooden-handled valves behind the leather flap located behind the driver’s ankles. The six-metal-handled valves on the outside of the car also posed perplexing questions.

The previous owner sent him a cryptic message: “Don’t try to start it!”

Kilsheimer abided by the warning not to light the boiler, but he did hook the Locomobile to a compressed air hose and actually drove his car on the limited tether in his driveway propelled by air under pressure instead of steam under pressure.

“I wanted to make sure it ran,” he says. Compressed air works just as well as steam to verify the workings of the engine.

The horsehair-packed tufted leather seat cushion sits directly over the boiler, Ottawa burner, Maxwell pilot, and Mason engine. What would have been cargo space behind the seat in a horse-drawn carriage is a water tank shrouded by a leather cover with a flap for access to fill the tank.

A hex-nut in the center of the floorboard provides access to the fuel tank. Kilsheimer says the fuel of choice is Coleman lantern fuel, which gives us an indication of the octane of the fuel available a century ago.

Brass was big in those days and Kilsheimer, while seated at the tiller of the right-hand-drive car, discovered a brass rod protruding between his legs from beneath the seat cushion. That brass rod operates the steam whistle.

At the rear of the vehicle a pair of brass exhaust pipes emit steam from the engine that operates between 180 and 300 psi. “You can go about 20 miles before you run out of water,” Kilsheimer explains.

He surmises that the design of the car was completed when an excess of exhaust was discovered. Hence, an unfinished, crude-appearing T-shaped smoke stack was installed, rising through the leather shroud over the water tank.

A brass bicycle pump is used to pressurize the fuel tank to 40 psi before lighting the pilot light, preparatory to starting the two-cylinder double-acting engine.

“If your trip was less than 5 miles, it was quicker to walk.” Kilsheimer says, “No question about it.” He suspects that ownership of an automobile, any automobile, more than a century ago was strictly an ego trip for the owner.

Locomobile publicity literature from 1899 touted the steam car’s ability to go up to 40 mph, climb grades of 36 degrees, and go between 20 to 40 miles on one tank of water. It was understood, of course, that all the claims were gross exaggerations.

Kilsheimer’s Locomobile is sprung with three sets of leaf springs: one above each rear wheel and one transverse spring above the front axle.

In the driver’s seat two gauges are visible, the fuel pressure at the far left of the dashboard and the steam pressure at the far right. In addition to those two gauges the only other function the tiller-operator has to contend with is the brake beneath the right foot. The sight glass, displaying the water level, is mounted on the right side of the body — ironically, where the driver can’t see the glass.

Conveniently located at the driver’s elbow are two levers, one to put the car in forward gear, reverse, or neutral. The other lever controls the acceleration.

“A lot of the controls are useless,” Kilsheimer says, “but nobody at that time knew what they were doing.”