Serpollet steam tricycle – in Paris

Posted by jerry on February 6th, 2007 — Posted in History, Journal, Steam, Technology

One of my favourite museums in Paris is the Musee des Artes et Metiers – home of the surviving second Cugnot steam wagon (fardier a vapeur). But it is also home to much more as I found when I started to look more closely at the photos I brought back from there last year.

One of the exhibits, not far from Cugnot’s wagon is another remarkable survivor from the pioneering days of self-propelled road vehicles.

Serpollet steam tricar

Serpollet-Peugeot steam tricar (1889)
Leon Serpollet – largely credited with inventing the flash steam boiler (by which steam is generated almost instantaneously as needed rather than by the slower process of boiling in a pressurised vessel). It is said that he came up with the idea when watching his father quench newly-forged horseshoes in his blacksmiths shop. It’s as good a tale as that of James Watt and the kettle!

After a couple of lightweight ‘test-bed’ three-wheelers based on pedal vehicle, in 1889, in conjunction with Armand Peugeot, he built a much heavier more business-like tricar.

In the book Steam Cars 1770-1970 Lord Montagu of Beauleiu and Antony Bird describe this tricar as follows:

… a large three-wheeled carriage.. it ran on wooden spoked wheels with a cricket seat above the single front wheel and a more comfortable bench for two, just ahead of the back axle with the engine concealed beneath it. The Serpollet hopper-fed coke-burning flash boiler, with a downtake flue, was hung behind the back axle on which the wheels were driven by side chains from a differential countershaft connected to the two-cylinder engine by spur gears. Unlike the contemporary Benz petrol tricars, which it otherwise resembled, the Serpollet-Peugeot had the front wheel fork curved to provide castor action. The fork itself was unsprung, but leaf springs were interposed between the mounting of the fork and the chassis frame.

Serpollet steam tricar
Serpollet-Peugeot steam tricar 1889

I knew from the description that I had stumbled across the exact vehicle being described.

After it was shown at the Paris Exposition in Autumn 1889, the carriage was driven from Paris to Lyon – a journey of around 300 miles (480km) – a journey which took, on various accounts, between ten and fourteen days. It was not a blessed journey and showed the tenacity required of a motoring pioneer:

[during this journey]… almost everything which could break or fall off did so, including the steering arm, the brake, the back axle and a wheel. The engine and boiler gave relatively little trouble except that a piston rod gland nut worked loose and was mangled by the connecting-rod before the engine could be stopped, and the door of the ash-pan fell off allowing too much draft through the fire which overheated and melted two grate bars.

After this journey from hell, Peugeot decided to explore petrol engines and another marque was launched.

Nevertheless, the few Serpollet carriages were known for their outstanding turn of speed – even on hills and were known to achieve 12-14 mph (19.3-22.5kph). And the flash boiler meant that steam could be raised in a couple of minutes, rather than the half hour or more for standard boilers.

Be warned though, the Musee des artes et Metiers website is not easy to navigate!

But the buildings are delightful 🙂

Musee des Artes et Metiers, Paris

Musee des Artes et Metiers, Paris


1 Comment

Comment by Laura

What a great resource! Thank you. I work with high school students that are very interested in stean power. Our community is automobile-aware because we are the home of George Schuster of the Great Race story.
The centennial year is coming up.

Posted on November 20, 2007 at 1:40 am

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