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The Strange Triumph Of Abner Doble
He built the finest American car of its time—huge and powerful and smooth as silk—using a technology that almost every other automaker had abandoned. If he hadn’t been such a perfectionist, we might be driving steam cars to this day.
Summer 1998 | Volume 14, Issue 1
THE DOBLE MODEL E RAN LIKE NO other car of the 1920s. It even sounded different. When the driver flipped the starting switch, a distinct whump came from under the hood, followed by a steady, throaty, subdued rumble that suggested great power barely contained. After a short time, two minutes or less, the roar subsided. Then, as it drove away, this huge, powerful automobile made virtually no sound at all beyond the muted, liquid hum of tires on pavement. The usual jagged rhythm of shifting gears and the attendant revving and subsiding noises of a gasoline engine were absent because the Model E had no gears, clutch, or transmission. A driver simply opened the throttle mounted on the steering wheel and the car accelerated into effortless speed in a continuous, smoothly rising arc without pause or hesitation. “There was a mysterious majesty about them,” a fan later recalled, “which derived from their combination of massiveness and the ability to go like the wind with scarcely a trace of sound.” Driving a Doble, it was often said, was like riding on a magic carpet.
For all its windlike swiftness, the Model E was a large, stately automobile stretched across a wheelbase nearly 12 feet long. The car’s body, executed in an assortment of expensive styles by the famed Walter M. Murphy Coach Works of Pasadena, was blocky and mammoth, accented by snappy Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels from England and drum-sized silvery Hall headlights with Bausch & Lomb lenses and reflectors. Ready to roll, with all its fluids topped off, the Model E weighed some 5,500 ponderous pounds.
The Model E could achieve its extraordinary combination of immensity and grace because it was driven by steam. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times , a masterly silent movie filmed in 1935, it was the last and finest flowering of an obsolete technology. Until the gas-powered Duesenberg Model J was introduced in 1929, no other American car of its time could approach the Doble’s blend of handling, acceleration, smoothness, and opulent, hang-the-expense elegance. It would outrun any Packard, Cadillac, Lincoln, or Fierce-Arrow of the.day. “A motor-car that has shattered all conceptions of automobile performance,” the Los Angeles Evening Express called it in 1923.
The Hollywood mogul Joseph Schenck bought one for his wife, the actress Norma Talmadge. An Indian maharajah had one outfitted for tiger hunting, complete with spigots for beer and ice water. Howard Hughes, then an obscure 19-year-old still living in his hometown of Houston, bought a Model E in the spring of 1925. Although he owned many luxury automobiles, Hughes relied on his Doble to outrace Houston’s other rich young swells in their gas cars. When he moved out to California, Hughes left behind his Cadillac but brought along his Model E.
The car inspired passionate loyalty in a small circle of devotees. Charles T. Briar of San Diego drove a Model E for 20 years. Aside from normal maintenance, in 186,000 miles of driving the car needed only two new sets of tires (plus one set retreaded), two new batteries, and a patch on the firebox. “When running on normal level road the fire is on one-third of the time at 50 m.p.h. with throttle about a quarter open,” Briar wrote in 1956. “It handles excellently in traffic, the fire is seldom on in city driving, and the stored power of steam under pressure gives unbeatable ‘get-away’ and very good, easy control when slowing and accelerating again. You can go a city block while gas cars are getting worked up into top gear.”
Among today’s collectors the Model E is even more highly prized. A particularly valuable Model E recently changed hands in California for a million dollars. In its time, though, the car was a hopeless commercial disaster. It attracted so few buyers that only 24 were manufactured before the Doble company expired in a mess of legal problems and disappointed stockholders. In both its magnificence and its failure, the car faithfully reflected its main creator—his engineering gifts as well as his personal shortcomings.
Abner Doble had lived amid the clangor and hum of machines from an early age. He was born in 1890 into a San Francisco family of mechanical engineers and perfectionists. (Later he sometimes knocked five years off his age and claimed an 1895 birthdate.) During the gold rush his grandfather had set up a forge and made miners’ tools. The family business prospered, eventually developing water wheels for mountain streams in the Sierra Nevada and steel wheels and axles for San Francisco streetcars. Abner and his three younger brothers grew up in an atmosphere of metal, invention, and the highest expectations. Abner showed some promise as a pianist, but at the age of eight he started working after school in the family machine shop at five cents an hourand was hooked for life.