According to the book, the first functional steam car was invented by a Frenchman in 1769. He pulled canons with it it. But that's only the first steam car. There were spring driven and compressed air vehicles before that.
The first American steam car we know about was made in 1805, and cars managed to get into the newspapers with increasing frequency after that. The first picture of an American auto we have was of the Dudgeon Steam Wagon (above) in 1853. It looks like a miniature locomotive.
Early cars were mostly tractors, but inventors tinkered together smaller, lighter recreational vehicles as novelties, or to promote other products they were trying to sell, like carriages or batteries.
Eventually bicycles became a big deal and for a while it looked like the steam powered bike (above) would be the horseless carriage of the future. The bikes were lighter, faster, and cheaper to make than cars. I guess they just weren't comfortable over long distances.
Here's (above) a Stanley Steamer from 1906. What a design! It looks like it's moving when it's standing still! I rode a few yards in one of these with Jay Leno. It was the best ride in a car that I ever had. The car started instantly, and drove very smooth and quiet.
The English in particular went nuts over steam and continued to make beautiful steam cars right up to the 1950s.
They came in all sizes and shapes.
But, I digress.
So what happened to steam cars in the U.S.? I'm not sure. They ran quieter, were easier to repair, and were pretty safe relative to internal combustion engines. Some of them were also fast. A racing version of the Stanley Roadster 1908 model was clocked at 127 mph.!
Maybe they got a bad rep because so many railroad locomotives were blowing up. Or... maybe patents were the problem.
The patents that made steam power so attractive were spread out among small time inventors all over America. The gasoline engine people came later and had to rethink the whole way a car was put together. Maybe fewer people owned the gas patents, and that made manufacture easier. 'Just guessing.
This (above) isn't the electric car that Granny drove in the Tweety cartoons, but it looks a lot like it. It's the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout from 1903. The canopy distracts from the basic idea, which is that of a sofa mounted on a high buggy. No sides and very little front to enclose the driver. If you closed your eyes while on the road you might imagine that you were flying.
Oldsmobiles (above) are often thought of as old people's cars, but Olds sold an adaption of their racing car, called "The Pirate."
Here's one of my favorite car designs: the 1913 Mercer Raceabout! Check out that extra seat on the running board! No doubt that seat played its part in accidents, but I'd risk it. Wouldn't you?
This (above) isn't a beautiful car, but it gets points for being a funny one. It's the cartoony Cabriolet Locomobile (above). I love how the chauffeur's seat is exposed to the elements, but the owner's seat is entirely enclosed. The carriage tradition demanded that the chauffeur be out there in the ether, buffeted by bees and rain and hail.
I like to think of an eccentric, Type "A" owner using the speaking tube to regail the harried driver with threats or with bad poetry.