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More Oddities on The Old Motor – The Steam Truck

It was steam that drove the explosive growth of the U.S. economy in the second half of the 19th century. Whether threshing the wheat in American’s bread basket, powering mills and industrial plants larger than any ever seen before or moving the massive quantities of the raw materials necessary to keep those factories humming, steam was relied upon to get the job done. So it’s only logical that this tried and true propulsion system would make the transition from railroad, manufactory and farm field to the primitive road vehicles of the early 20th.


Above, English steam trucks are pictured in an article about The Liverpool Trials for Trucks found in the August 28, 1901 issue of  “The Horseless Age”.

While the first horseless carriages were rapidly improving from year to year, it would be a while before they were to become sufficiently robust to move the heavy cargoes that were steam’s forte. Take, for example, the 20 horsepower Grout Brothers truck carrying a Grout steam car seen in our top photo today. Note it’s clearly displayed five ton capacity. At the time there were few, if any, gasoline powered vehicles that could handle a load like that. The company used this truck for delivering their automobiles. Note the lower of the two wheels mounted on the steering column. It’s the throttle control. Photo from the April 30, 1904 issue of  “The Automobile Magazine”.

Above, an enormous 35 horsepower Paul H.White Steam Wagon of six to seven ton capacity. This Cincinnati based company was in no way related to the better known White Motor Company of Cleveland, who were coincidentally building steam cars at the time. Photo from “The Horseless Age” of  Sept. 24, 1902.

Few American steam trucks like the Bell in our last thumbnail (below) were built after 1910 as more powerful gasoline engines and stronger drivelines were developed, but the British continued to carry the torch and built them well into the 1930’s. The abundance of coal and lack of oil in the U.K made it somewhat sensible for them to carry on with the older design. And just as it seemed that the steam lorry had outlived it’s usefulness and was obsolete, many were pressed back into service for heavy haulage duties after the outbreak of World War II when precious oil and gasoline supplies were diverted to the military.


L to R, above : A Thornycroft steam truck in London, from “The Horseless Age” of July 5, 1905. The Pittsburg, a very heavy American model, from the March, 1908 issue of  “The Cycle and Auto Trade Journal” and the Bell Steam Truck, from “The Cycle and Auto Trade Journal” of May, 1905. 

We have seen a photo of a six wheeled Foden road tar boiler that was still active with a paving crew in 1956 and have it on good authority that a Sentinel “Elephant” was still being used to move railroad cars on the docks of Teignmouth in Devon County until the 1960’s! You can find many more steam-powered machines here on The Old Motor.

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