Last week, I wrote about a car that I heard briefly mentioned during an unrelated show of Jay Leno’s Garage, and this week’s car has a similar origin story, although I can’t remember the specific episode. The car in question is actually an entire car company; one that I am almost certain you haven’t heard of before, with the name of Gardner-Serpollet. What made me interested is Jay Leno mentioning in passing that it was probably one of the best steam cars made. While Jay usually knows his stuff, I decided to take a look for myself, and learn about the Gardner-Serpollet. This is what I learned.
If you haven’t heard of Gardner-Serpollet before, you can be forgiven, as they produced steam cars in France in the early 1900’s, for a short period of time, as well as in small numbers. The company was founded by—and driven by—the French steam-inventor Léon Serpollet, who lends his name to the company (we will get to the Gardner part a little later). Serpollet is best known for his innovative take on steam power, which resulted in his invention and patenting of the flash boiler.
The flash boiler is able to turn a small amount of water into very hot steam almost instantly, therefore providing a constant supply of steam, enabling sustained, long distance travel. While I am by no means a technical expert, it sounds very vaguely like a fuel injection system, but for steam. Such a system allowed a more advanced fueling system, utilizing oil, as well as a more advanced engine design, which included poppet valves and an enclosed crankcase. When he invented this boiler is unkown, although a tricycle was made in the late 1880’s to demonstrate the technology to investors.
To further demonstrate his technology, four Serpollet-powered vehicles were entered into the 1894 Contest For Horseless Carriages from Paris to Rouen held on the 22nd of July. Results were respectable with two vehicles succumbing to attrition and the remaining two taking 14th and 16th. The contest, held by Le Petit Journal, did gain attention from investors for the budding Serpollet operation.
One of these investors was Frank Gardner, who in 1898 invested in Serpollet, and the advanced steam powerplants he had designed, thus lending his name to the newly-formed company. The first car would be produced in 1900, with a 5hp steam engine, and as the company did no bodywork, all finished cars had coachwork bodies.
The company would spend its first years slowly building up production capacity, while working kinks out of its models. As such, only a few of each model would be produced and sold before the company developed an improved, newly labeled model, quickly supplanting the old one. The cars were not cheap, and were aimed at a upscale customer who wanted to travel long distances. Due to the flash boiler, the Serpollet-powered cars featured some of the most impressive ranges for horseless carriages in their day.
Like so many automotive pioneers before and after him, Léon Serpollet soon decided to again take his creations racing, proving themselves in the crucible of motorsport. He did this through a steam-powered creation he called Œuf de Pâque, which translates to Easter Egg in English. In April of 1902 he took his ovoid steam car through the flying kilometer on the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, achieving 75mph, becoming the first non-electrically powered car to hold the Land Speed Record.
Unfortunately, as his company was gathering steam (pun intended, sue me) Léon Serpollet passed away, ending the company in 1907. Despite the company only producing cars for 7 years, it seems Mr. Leno was right in saying they had earned a stellar reputation: they were known as fast, quiet, long-range cruisers, all relative to the other cars of the day. Their value is still recognized today, as a rare, mostly unique 1905 18HP example sold at auction in 2014 for the price of £371,100, or almost $500,000 USD. A count of surviving examples has yet to be done, and total numbers left are unknown.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.