SES 1974 Dodge Monaco

Steam Engine Systems and later Scientific Energy Systems was a company founded by three PhD’s from MIT to work on steam projects in the late 1960’s.  The flurry of activity then was caused by smog and air pollution issues that had become important political issues, hence causing politicians to scramble about trying to solve things.  The car represents $7 million of EPA money and seven years of work by a very skilled team.  It fulfilled the terms of the contract, running on a chassis dynamometer while producing clean air.  It never drove on the road.

The boiler, or technically more accurately named, the steam generator, is very small and it fit into the empty space under the hood.  It exists and is one of the most marvelous examples of a compact steam generator.  Every possible engineering ploy was used, starting with very high air-side and water-side pressure drops and a vaporizing blue flame burner for compactness and finned tubing.

The four cylinder engine was designed by the Ricardo group over in England and also represents quite sophisticated engineering.  The intake valves are poppet series valves with phased camshafts so that steam was only admitted when both valves were open.  The reason for this design decision is because an efficient steam engine needs to be cutoff controlled for torque and not throttle controlled, where many energy losses occur.  A conventional automobile IC engine cam and poppet valve system does not work in a steam situation because of the steepness of the cam shoulder needed to operate a steam engine.  Huge forces were at work.

When you look at this car and the amount of engineering work that went into it, one comes to several conclusions.  Or, at least, I came to many conclusions; most of them involving wasted effort and missed opportunities.  Because it was a government specified project there were a lot of pre-set rules.  Because it was a government project most of the rules were unnecessary, counter-productive, and wasteful.  The rules were to make a steam engine that fit everything into an existing production model automobile engine compartment, to have all of the conveniences of a modern car: automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering/power brakes, and to be able to condense all of the steam under any possible driving situation.

Another big waste of time and effort was to make the car freeze-proof with the requirements being that it could be parked at an airport where it was 30 below for a month and then started up.  Therefore water was drained to a pan where it could be thawed by battery power.  A much better method of achieving this goal would be to do what everyone in Alaska does with their IC cars and what all semi truck drivers do with their diesels; which is to plug them in to an outlet so a heating element can keep their engines warm.  Another method would be what Saab proposed for their steam project, a small pilot light in an insulated engine compartment.

When the car was finished the 1973 oil embargo sent the price of fuel up and so all steam development work was dropped in favor of higher mileage vehicles.  This is what happens when politicians are in charge of financing engineering development.

The opportunity missed was to do a steam power plant development in and of itself to make a compact and efficient unit.  The first units did not need to be so consumer friendly that any non-technical person with no training could operate the vehicle and they did not need all of the power auxiliaries and they did not need to be completely condensing.  At the worst possible conditions; climbing a hill in Death Valley in the summer, the cooling fans for the condenser, which were variable speed, consumed half the horsepower the engine produced.  A few five gallon cans of water in the trunk and some basic mechanical knowledge of how to pour liquid into a tank would have solved a lot of those problems.  Also the cramming everything into the engine compartment was completely unnecessary.  To begin with shortly after this time mini-vans were invented and they had much more flexibility in the location of power plant units.  Secondly, a steam power plant has the intrinsic capability of separating out all of the different components: burner, heat exchanger, condenser, expander, and pumps into small components tucked into odd places around the vehicle.  Thirdly, the first use of a steam powered vehicle is more likely a pickup truck where much could be placed in the truck bed or under the chassis and not in the engine compartment.  Fourthly, the most practical threshold use of a steam vehicle would not be a personal vehicle that only puts on ten thousand miles a year or so, but a high mileage vehicle where the extra expense of the steam system could be amortized quicker.

Therefore, a delivery van of some type or a small passenger bus, that had a lot of stops and starts and was running all day long and generally operating out of a central dispatch center where servicing and fueling could be done daily, would be much more practical as an entry level steam vehicle.   The SES Monaco should be studied as a successful steam development project.  It should also be noted that most of the engineering effort was wasted because of unreasonable specifications of the contract

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4 Responses to SES 1974 Dodge Monaco

  1. Dan says:

    Very Cool! There’s a company Switch Electric Car’s or something that’s selling a kit car to votech high schools so the kids can learn all about electric cars while building one. Does the Steam Car community have any thing like that for the kids to learn on while thinkig with there hands?

    • tkimmel3 says:

      Dear Dan, The short answer is no. And the reasons are legend. To begin with the steam automobile community is small and poorly funded. Secondly, we are all inventors and thus can agree on nothing. As a club we are fortunate to get along as well as we are doing and as a club we are not capable of doing anything that resembles a business or a manufacturing facility. However, some of us have discussed that very same idea and we think it is an excellent one. It would make the most sense to design it around one of the off-road recreational vehicles ATV or Kawasaki Mule or John Deere Gator or whatever the Polaris thing is called. Then it would make the most sense to have it wood fired, so that the person could drive it quietly and relatively slowly, hence safely, out in the woods on trails and logging roads collecting fuel along the way. One of the Strath Steam 2x2x2 Vee engines making 20 hp or so would be adequate, or one of Gary Hadden’s two cylinder in-line engines. An advantage of this would be the ability to use this in the evenings as a stationary electrical generating plant for a cabin or camp. The first step is to make a prototype and test it fully. Once that is done then it would be feasible for college engineering clubs to work with it: there would be a good running chassis and a standard and well designed engine. The burner and steam generator would be left to be fabricated with plenty of examples around so that it can be done. Tom Kimmel

  2. Dan says:

    Ya know if you guys did come up with a good save steam powered kit car you might just save a few lives!


    • tkimmel3 says:

      March 19, 2014 Dear Dan, Thanks for that YouTube cite. For those who are not looking at the video, it is a compressed air tank with some water in it sitting above a nice wood fire. Pipe is running steam to a converted B & S engine. These things, tanks or pressure cookers with a little water in them and a fire will kill everyone without exception. It is amazing. What these things show is that many people are fascinated by steam. Also that they all are bereft of steam knowledge. We all use half inch or smaller tubing for a steam generator. The burst strength on these things range from 8,000 psi to 16,000 psi. The part that fails is where it gets red hot when the water level gets lower than the fire. Then it bulges and there is a small hole, but no shrapnel and only a loud noise to scare a person. No one dies. We are working on these things. It is a good thing that my time and computer skills are limited or I would be on those comment posts all of the time explaining how things work. Tom Kimmel

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