A correspondent who is apparently a persistent follower of these sideslips reminds me that I have outstanding a promise to discourse upon Serpollet road steamers. Well, that is a promise which I am only too willing to redeem. Ever since I first saw that marvellous photograph of the start of Leon Serpollet’s trip to Lyons in January, 1890, originally published, I believe, in La France Automobile, the subject has had a peculiar fascination for me. The machine shown is the new tricycle which Serpollet had just had built for him by M. Armand Peugeot, head of the firm which, as big bicycle manufacturers, was trying to live down the fact that it had started out by making those excellent pepper mills without which no French dinner table is complete; and there is no doubt but that it is a rakish-looking turn-out. A seat for two is arranged between a pair of large carriage wheels, with a handsome carriage lamp mounted high up above each of them and a bulb horn fitted in a convenient position for operation by the passenger. The front of the vehicle is dependent on the single steering wheel, mounted in a fork at the base of a slightly inclined, completely straight pillar, with a horizontal cross-bar at its top. Behind the seat is disposed the coke-fired “instantaneous steam generator” invented by Serpollet, which consisted of a flattened coil of steel tube, heated in a furnace, with the result that, water being pumped in at one end, steam came out at the other. The fire is evidently going satisfactorily, and from the tall chimney at the back of the automobile there is issuing a reassuring haze of smoke.
Somehow Serpollet had induced to accompany him on this perilous expedition the unfortunate Ernest Archdeacon, described as ” l’homme de tous lea sports.” I do not think, however, that he can have fully appreciated what this new sport was going to let him in for. Admittedly the crew have taken the precaution of perching two suit-cases, one small and one tiny, on what looks like the tool-box in front of the steering-pillar; but while Serpollet leans eagerly forward to grasp the steering bar, Archdeacon beside him is sitting bolt upright, in a high curly-brimmed bowler hat, a high “choker” stiff collar, with an “albert” watch-chain draped across his waistcoat, looking straight in front of him and grasping the edge of the seat as if for all the world he wished he had never consented to come!
Perhaps he was suffering from prognostications, for that trip to Lyons proved to be a chapter of accidents. Near Briennon the front fork broke, and they arrived in the town with Serpollet giving the wheel little taps, first this side, then that, in order to steer. Then the single brake ceased work on the hill going down into St. Florentin, just as its good inhabitants were coming out of church one Sunday morning. Then one of the back wheels, with a decent bit of the axle attached, came off and rolled on ahead of them, while the car did a neat pirouette on the bottom of the boiler. Of course there was service in those days, and a new axle arrived the very next day on the train from Paris, which is more than you could expect in 1946. And besides, think of it, they could take on supplies of coke, without any question of a licence, anywhere they liked en route!
After these early experiments, Serpollet was all set for commercial production, with the financial assistance of the American, Frank Gardner, and in 1893, J. H Knight, the English pioneer, journeyed to Paris to see what was going on. “On arriving at M. Serpollet’s works in Montmartre,” he wrote afterwards, “I found him and two other men, who, like myself, had come to see the carriage, on the point of starting. The carriage is of the phaeton type. The steersman sits in front, and at his right hand are the levers for working the starting pump and the brake; at the after part of the vehicle is the steam generator and coke-box. A lad was with us who, as far as I could see, was not required during the journey.”
The journey presumably was not unduly long, but undoubtedly “the lad” was one of the few genuine “chauffeurs” or stokers who have given their name to a legion of paid drivers who for half a century have never heated anything except their employers’ tempers.
“We started over some very rough paving,” proceeds Mr. Knight, “at about seven miles per hour. The visitor to Paris, who only sees the excellent roads in the neighbourhood of the Rue de Rivoli and the Champs Elysées, will, if he goes to Montmartre (the working-class district of Paris) find very different roads.”
Serpollet, indeed, knew more than all about them. Having fitted one of his early engines to a very rickety tricycle the predecessor of the one built specially by Peugeot, he had applied to M. Michel Lévy, chief engineer for the Seine Département, for a licence to drive it, and had been bidden to appear with it in the Rue Spontini on April 17th, 1889. Accompanied, as was his wont, by a horse cab, in case of accidents, he had accordingly set off at dawn, but the wretched tricycle got such a hammering on the Montmartre pavé that all the bars of the grate fell out, the fuel followed them and there it was stranded in the Boulevard des Batignolles. Anxiously Serpollet collected the pieces that he could find on the road, rebuilt the grate, filled up at a local coal-merchant’s, and finally got his licence, although be arrived an hour late for his appointment. But to return to Mr. Knight.
“It was over this rough road,” he continues, “we jolted for a mile, or more, till, coming to the outskirts of the city, M. Serpollet showed what his carriage could do; for, on a stretch of wide, level road, we ran for several hundred yards at about 14 or 15 miles per hour. “On returning, a long hill, about as steep as Pentonville Hill, was run up at good speed, quite ten miles per hour, all other vehicles being overtaken and passed; this, however, was an excellent road, paved with wood. The machine ran very well; there was very little noise from the machinery, and it was under perfect control. There was no escape of steam or smoke, the products of combustion escaping near the ground at the rear of the carriage.”
As to this last virtue, it was due in large measure, no doubt, to the fact that M. Serpollet himself was driving. Ten years later, when, of course, coke as a fuel had given place to oil, Mr. J. B. Dugdale, an enthusiastic Serpollet owner, writing in “Cars and How to Drive Them,” remarks, somewhat apprehensively: “There is nothing more annoying when you are wanting to show off your car to a friend than to have smoke issuing from the chimney.” A sentiment with which I am inclined to agree.
A year after Mr. Knight’s expedition to Montmartre, Le Petit Journal organised its famous competition run from Paris to Rouen, but curiously enough, Serpollet himself did not take part in the event. The faithful Archdeacon, however, duly entered a Serpollet steamer, but as he did not reach Rouen until ten-past ten in the evening, it looks rather as if he must have had almost as eventful a journey as when he went to Lyons; which perhaps explains why two years later he had deserted steam for petrol, and appears in the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race at the tiller of a Delahaye.
Be that as it may, in 1894 M. Maurice Le Blant was the owner not only of an 8-seater Serpollet omnibus but also of a big delivery van, which had been ordered by the Paris shop “La Belle Jardiniere.” The first of these he proposed to drive to Rouen himself, and Serpollet had given him a half-promise that his brother-in-law, M. Avezard, would drive the latter. Perhaps, however, M. Avezard had other ideas; at any rate, at half-past eight on the morning of the contest he had not put in an appearance, and the unwieldy steamer had to be entrusted to Le Blant’s brother, Etienne, described, according to Gerald Rose, as “a person of good intentions but insufficient automobile experience,” who had already mounted the pavement with it and demolished a bench. Nevertheless he got it as far as Mantes, but after the lunch stop there, although his automobile experience must by then have increased considerably, his good intentions seem to have waned correspondingly, and he never reached Rouen. Maurice Le Blant’s omnibus, on the other hand, proved particularly useful, as it picked up the passengers from the other cars that got stranded, and was very properly awarded the third prize, although it was one of the last arrivals at Rouen.
The next year, 1895, was that of the first real motor race, the immortal contest from Paris to Bordeaux and back, and Serpollet at least took this sufficiently seriously to turn up himself. But ill-luck dogged him as much as it did the other steam protagonists, and his car broke its crank-shaft at Poitiers on, the return journey, just as it was beginning to do well. Whereupon Serpollet seems to have become discouraged and went off and built steam trams.
But not for long. By 1900 he was back building cars again, had succeeded in selling one to Alfred Harmsworth, afterwards Lord Northcliffe, and a couple more to the Shah of Persia. And what is more, the speed demon had gotten hold of him. In 1899, Camille Jenatzy, after a series of ding-dong matches for the kilometre record with the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, had decided to settle the matter once and for all by building an amazing blue cigar-shaped electric car called “La Jamais Contente” which, incidentally, would have been better streamlined had not more than half of Jenatzy projected from the top of it. In spite of this disadvantage, he succeeded in covering the flying kilometre in 34 seconds, at the phenomenal speed of 65.75 m.p.h., which was, in fact, so phenomenal that the Count abandoned the struggle.
Interest in the record did not, however, decline in noble circles; and in 1901 Baron Henri de Rothschild offered a cup for the fastest time over a kilometre, to be competed for at the Nice meeting. I fancy, actually, that the Baron, who entered the car under the pseudonym of Dr. Pascal, expected the cup to be duly reprieved by his chauffeur, Werner, who drove his Mercédès. But if so, he had reckoned without the steamers, and although Werner clocked 41 4/5 seconds, according to the special electrical timing apparatus devised by Louis Mors, Serpollet proceeded to walk off with the cup with 35 4/5 seconds. Jenatzy’s record, however, still stood, and great excitement prevailed at the 1902 meeting to see if it would be lowered. After Werner’s performance of the year before, there was a sizeable Mercédès entry, but once again Serpollet was there with a remarkable white 20-h.p. racer which got christened the “Easter Egg.” Whatever it had inside it certainly made it go, and to the amazement of the motoring world, it proceeded to cover the kilometre in 29 4/5 seconds. Stead, who was himself competing on a Mercédès, and who was destined the next year to be one of the casualties of the Paris-Madrid race, was so excited that, according to Pierre Souvestre (whose spelling, however, I am inclined to doubt), he greeted the returning record-breaker with cries of “Twenty-nine, Master Serpollet! Twenty-nine!”
The Autocar was hardly less impressed by “the wonderful performance of M. Serpollet with his 20-h.p. racing car of the shoe pattern, of which we publish a photograph. He pulverised all previous records by covering the flying kilometre at the phenomenal rate of 75 miles an hour. It is difficult to imagine how this performance can be beaten, for it seems to represent the maximum at which a driver is capable of steering a vehicle, and M. Serpollet was quite pale when he got down from his car, and his companion appeared utterly exhausted. He complained that he could not breathe, and had to turn his head to avoid suffocation.”
To Souvestre Serpollet described his experiences in these words: “Of the tribunes, the public, of all that lined my route, I saw nothing. As I started on the kilometre, I felt, as I opened my auxiliary pump, some terrible thing propel me as if from the mouth of a cannon. I glanced at my Manometer, which was showing fifty-three atmospheres. I glanced at the road, which turns twice, and I was already at the ‘control.’ It was all over, and I only had to brake. Luckily they had given me more than a kilometre in which to stop! “
The Serpollet engine, adds M. Souvestre, had one single-acting cylinder, 75 by 90 mm. bore and stroke, and ran at 1,220 r.p.m.; an inspiring power plant, to judge from the Autocar’s description of its performance in the La Turbie hill-climb, which remarks: “The Serpollets flew past the Control, with the flames roaring out of the top of the boiler.”
By the next year, however, Serpollet had an even more dramatic one ready. It was said to develop 250 h.p. and to be able to propel the new racing steamer at over 100 m.p.h. The “shoe pattern” had now been abandoned for a different design, which was boat-shaped, with M. Serpollet at the wheel in the bows. It seems, however, that before the trials he had forebodings that this lust for speed had gone too far. “That night,” records M. Baudry de Saunier, “he slept little. He had mounted underneath his car a sloping tray which ought, in his view, to reduce the air resistance in considerable measure. He began to calculate the force acting on this tray and found that it would be nearly 100 kilogrammes at 140 [kilometres] an hour. He considered that the front of his machine was already too light for such a road; what would happen to its stability when it was further lightened by 100 kilogrammes? The next morning, at dawn, he took an axe and, lying underneath his car, demolished the tray. Then he walked to the end of the promenade to have a cup of chocolate. Everyone greeted him with a grave-yard look. ‘You don’t want to kill yourself, Serpollet. Don’t go fast, I beg of you.’
“Serpollet ran last. The times of his competitors were mediocre. The officials said to him: ‘You can see, the cup is yours. Be sensible.’ And Madame Serpollet insisted!
“So he started off as if for an, ordinary drive, scarcely opening the throttle. Then, after 600 metres, he gave both pumps their head and finished the mile at 130 [kilometres] an hour, so he told me.”
So what with the insistences of Madame, what with the entreaties of his friends and the officials, what with calculations about the forces on the undertray (not to mention that cup of chocolate), Serpollet failed to better his time of the 1902 meeting and survived to die in his bed on February 16th, 1907. Of course he succeeded in making the fastest time and in winning the Rothschild Cup outright, so that the Baron had to present a second — to be competed for by petrol cars only. But the tide of automobile history, anyway, was now set strong against steam; and although I have driven a good many different sorts of cars in my time, I have never, to my lasting regret, thrown open the auxiliary pump of a steamer.