1902: Serpollet driven by Leon Serpollet

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4 cyl. Steam
1,800 kg
106 bhp @ 1220 rpm
Bore x Stroke :
75 x 90 mmm
Top Speed:
57.60 mph

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 history.

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.

The limitations 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 route.

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.

Also See:

Land Speed Record Drivers
Herbert Austin LSR Attempt
History Of The Land Speed Record
Unique Cars and Parts USA - The Ultimate Classic Car Resource