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Full Steam Ahead – Leon Serpollet

  • Egg
  • The 1902 “Oeuf de Pâques” (Easter Egg) Land Speed Record Holder

Leon Serpollet and his brother Henri, early French steam car pioneers, worked together to perfect the flash tube boiler that introduced an efficient and new way produce steam. The exact date that their innovative system was first built appears to be unknown, but after further development it went on to make steam power in an automobile more practical because of its advanced design and quick steam output.

A steam tricycle was built in the late eighteen-eighties to test the system and it soon convinced others of the merit of the design. In 1898 the brothers met Frank Gardner, a wealthy American and the Gardener-Serpollet Company was soon formed. Shortly afterwards, one of the best-engineered early steam cars to be found entered the automotive marketplace.

The flash-tube or mono tube boiler as it is also known, turns a small quantity of water into steam quickly and it also has the ability to provide a continual supply to the engine when correctly designed. The new boiler also reduced the long period of time it took to get a conventional unit up to a useable pressure. Linking it to the advanced four cylinder engine Serpollet designed, resulted in a fast and powerful performer.

The Gardener-Serpollet success story soon resulted in Leon setting a new World Land Speed Record at 75.06 mph on April 13, 1902, driving the “Easter Egg” in Nice, France. He then turned his attention to producing the Gardner-Serpollet and the Serpollet Steam Tram until his death in 1907. Top photo from the Peter Helck collection courtesy of Racemaker Press.


The photo above shows what appears to be a 1904 Serpollet racing car. It is unknown at this point if it did in fact ever take part in a competition event. If you can tell us anything about this unusual car wearing a large steam condensor mounted out front, please send us a comment. Photo via Isabelle Bracquemond courtesy of Varia.

The photo below shows a slightly later 1906 Gardner-Serpollet engine, which clearly illustrates the advanced enclosed design and the camshaft actuated poppet valves. More information, photos and illustrations can be found at the source of the photo, Grace’s Guide. You can also view a 1903 Gardner-Serpollet in the collection at the Larz Anderson Museum.


10 responses to “Full Steam Ahead – Leon Serpollet

  1. The Serpollet racer with license no. 169-I (issued in february 1902!) puzzles me. First of all Serpollet did not compete in the 1904 Circuit des Ardennes. Le Blon did, but had changed to Hotchkiss after the French elimination trials for the Coupe Internationale (better known as the Gordon Bennett Cup) and indeed finished on 5th place. The Serpollet racer is in some ways similar to the cars used at the trials (the sharp pointed body), but still differs in body shape and cooling arrangement. The last event Le Blon raced for Serpollet was the Arras hill climb end of May 1904. The cars used there were similar to those of the Gordon Bennett Cup trials, but lacked the extra cooling (condensation) device at the front, probably because of the short racing distances and the weight gain. So where the 169-I did race (if it ever raced), is at the moment unclear to me. The departure of Le Blon seems to have marked the end of Serpollet’s racing ambitions, as the make did not take part in any major racing event hereafter.

  2. “The info I found on Le Blon in The Motor Way listed those results I put in the post”

    I didn’t notice any results in the post.

  3. I have found something about that car:

    Resource 1 : Gallica
    ‘Le Sport Universel Illustré’ n. 408 (1904 may 15)
    There is a photo of the same car driven by Pelzer in an article about the French elimination trials for the Coupe Internationale.
    link to source

    Resource 2 : Jean-Pierre Logeais blog
    The same image is commented as : “La Serpollet qui participa sans doute aux éliminatoires de la coupe Gordon Bennet , le 17 juin 1904, à Homburg (ou Hombourg, en Sarre – Allemagne-), fut également celle n°169-1 qui figure sur une photo des préparatifs de départ pour les essais de la course des Ardennes françaises.”
    kink to source

    Resource 3 : Darren Galpin website
    There is a photo of the same car with plate 169-I (1904 French Gordon Bennett Elimination Trials)
    link to source

    Hope it helps.

  4. Some interesting facts on Serpollet cars are to be found in Patrick Deville’s book Peste et Choléra, a biography of doctor and pasteurian Alexandre Yersin. The doctor ordered the first car in Indochina — a Serpollet. His second car was the same brand. Likewise he ordered a steam launch from the French firm. On trips back to France Yersin got to know Serpollet well, and if I recall right, drove with the inventor in the Easter Egg. I suspect Deville knows more about Serpollet than he included in his book. Moreover, I believe the info cam from Yersin’s archives in the Pasteur Institute.

  5. There is a photo of one of the cars in an article on the Gordon-Bennett elimination trials in 1904 Automotor Journal (April 30th, p525). It states the driver of that car is Monsieur Pelzer. The car is 6 cylinder nominally rated at 50hp, but apparently developing 150bhp. The live axle is driven by a single chain. The French trials were on May 20th, and the event reported in Automotor on May 28th. The three Serpollet cars were placed 5th (Le Blon), 9th (Pelser), and a DNF for Chanliaud who only completed one lap. Some details of the cars from the results table are weight 990kg, wheelbase 2.8 metres.

  6. Why not Modern Serpollet , 4 cyls. allowing expansive operation with modern burners , at least two available , actuated by “pager” type remote unlocking pads to start the burner remotely and in effect give “instant” starting ?

    Higher pressures are feasible no doubt. Single Digit cut-offs with high superheat may allow more expansive use of steam at cruising valve timing at highway speed.

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