Peter Legros wasn’t kidding when he said I’d know I was at the right place. For parked outside and wreathed in steam flaring white in the early autumn sun, his bright red Locomobile was hard to miss.
This 1900 car has quite some history. It was imported in 1901 by the official distributor, George Henning, appointed in 1900 and soon to help start the Automobile Association, which launched in May, 1903, with seven participants.
Back then a steam car made sense. Trains were run by steam, so were traction engines – plenty of folk knew how to work it, unlike the new-fangled internal combustion engine.
This American car was designed as a city runabout. It could maintain speed longer than a horse could, was quiet, and with horse troughs everywhere, it was easy to fill up.
Old-time motoring — remarkably quiet, but frequent refills required.
“But you know how people are, before long they were trying to cross American prairies in them.” And NZ hills. A Locomobile made the first car trip from Auckland to Rotorua, and Mr Henning drove this one from Auckland to Wellington, carrying his new bride on honeymoon for part of the way, “she wasn’t going in with her eyes closed,” Peter says.
Hennings was warned he’d be mad to attempt the Rimutakas… The car made it up, but his terrified wife jumped ship part way, and was blown into a ditch by the wind. When the kerosene lamps kept blowing out, they tied the car down overnight… no wonder the trip took two weeks.
Mr Henning was clearly a character, he also built Auckland’s first speedway track out by the airport – Peter has a 1930s BSA that raced there. The former P&O engineer had all the skills needed to get the Locomobile mobile, and to keep it original, though he suspects the leather mudguards may be replacements. Peter’s the fifth owner – Hennings sold it to Bishop Paterson, who “fried the boiler” and the next two owners, including a scrapyard on Auckland’s Stanley St, had it dismantled in boxes. Ray Tomlin – one of the first vintage car-club members – put it together with Peter’s help, but it didn’t go, and it went up for auction, with a reserve on it.
Leather mudguards, and 23-inch speedway motorcycle tyres
Peter figured he was too busy, but long story short, it was soon his, and he even got the auto apparatus working that adjusts the head of steam. “The biggest deal was to keep it original,” and to that end he negotiated the labyrinthine US patents office, eventually obtaining the steam system’s patent drawings. The result was such a success he says you can now drive it anywhere you can source regular top-ups of fuel (petrol) and water, it’ll go around 50km per 120-litre tank of water and almost 100km per 18.9-litre tank of fuel, further when it’s hot: Peter’s driven it to Wellington, presumably with canisters of liquid strapped all over it, considerably adding to weight – it tips the scales at 447kg wet, says the brochure specification, which listed a rubber bucket for filling the water, tools and a sidelamp as standard features for this heavy runabout, with extra-wide seat and larger water capacity than the standard model.
The basic controls are simple, there’s no gearbox, just forward and reverse, and the only mirror checks the vital water level in the boiler.
Starting is relatively easy, though it takes 15 minutes to build a head of steam – plus 12 minutes to hand-pump the boiler full of water. When used every day a pilot light keeps everything warm overnight for an instant start, otherwise it takes 25 minutes before it’s ready to go, so it’s not a car to pop to the dairy in.
Forget a valve, and thar she blows.
Hopping up into the seat – at 2.2m long and 1.4 wide you wouldn’t want a large passenger – we’re soon off, barreling down the road at close to the speed of the traffic, “It’ll do 64kph for short periods if you open her up, and cruises at about 40.” It’s surprisingly quiet, and very breezy, though your legs are warm… There are no gears, the leaf-sprung suspension seems remarkably efficient and Peter says the brake – a rod pulling a contracting band around the rear axle – is almost too good, “if you apply it too quick you’re liable to go over the front.”
There are records of these cars in speed and reliability trials, with one epic event “under the auspices of the Long Island automobile club” recording a one-minute, 15-second mile, equating to around 50kph.
You do need to know what you’re doing. “There are too many things to forget, if you forget to open a valve you’ll wreck the boiler [Bishop Paterson’s name is again invoked in unflattering tones] and of course a lot of them went up in flames. There are a lot of steel parts around with no body, that’s what makes this one a freak.”
Peter thinks his is the only completely original, warranted, registered and running example of the around 4000 made, certainly in New Zealand and possibly the world, though a number have been built with copied bodies around the metal remains after a fire, and there are three vehicles registered as Locomobiles in NZ.