Alternative fuels have been around nearly as long as the automobile itself, and steam cars were part of the mix when the automobile was in its infancy. Eventually, however, the gasoline internal combustion engine became the de facto source of power. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the side effects of pollution caused by burning carbon-based fuels began to really show their face.
In the 1960s, smog became an enormous issue facing the United States, especially in California, and by the end of the decade, the U.S. government approached automakers to begin concocting their own solutions to curb emissions and pollution levels. What you see here is one solution that General Motors considered.
It’s a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle, called the SE-124, but there’s no V-8 or even V-6 engine under the hood. Nope, it’s powered by steam. So the story goes, Bill Bessler—a man who spent many hours working with steam engines—was tapped by GM to create a steam-powered car. Bessler also owned the remnants of steam engine company Doble, so he knew a thing or two about the propulsion method.
Bessler got to work. The original V-8 engine was sawed in half and left attached to the bell housing while the block was replumbed to handle steam. The right side of the Vee became home to a high-pressure cylinder, and the steam was then sent to the left side, which housed a low-pressure cylinder. Finally, the steam was exhausted through a condenser before the process started all over again.
When all was said and done, the Chevelle was capable of returning 15 mpg. That’s not a terrible number for the time period and the engine obviously produced far fewer emissions than gasoline-powered cars.
But, GM gave the car back to Bessler after all his work was reviewed. Following Bessler’s tenure with the car, the 1969 Chevelle made its way to the Harrah’s collection, and it now sits in Tom Kimmel’s private collection. It currently doesn’t run, but the engine does turn over. With electric vehicles going full-steam ahead (see what we did there?), this steam-powered car from the late 1960s will likely remain an experimental, yet intriguing, footnote of automotive history.