Numerous steam cars have made appearances on Jay Leno's Garage, but for this episode Jay provides an in-depth explanation of how to start and drive his 1909 White Model M. Spoiler alert: It's a lot more complicated than turning an ignition key.

Where gasoline and diesel cars use the combustion of air and fuel to drive a piston (or in some cases, a rotor), steam engines use pressurized steam generated by heating water onboard. As with gasoline engines, the piston's motion is harnessed to turn the wheels.

The White used for this demonstration features the most-powerful engine the company made, which put out a whopping 40 hp. It's similar to the first official White House cars, and the White's use as presidential transportation shows just how big of a deal steam power was at the turn of the 20th century.

1909 White Model M steam car on Jay Leno's Garage

1909 White Model M steam car on Jay Leno's Garage


While internal combustion eventually became the dominant method of propulsion, that wasn't a sure thing in the early days of the automobile. Steam was the mature technology, thanks to decades of refinement in railroad locomotives and industrial applications. Internal-combustion engines were unfamiliar, and, because a national network of gas stations hadn't been built yet, they didn't yet have the edge in convenience.

One of steam's downfalls was the time-consuming starting process, as demonstrated here. First, you have to manually pressurize the fuel and make sure the water tank is topped off. Like a water heater or stove, the White uses a pilot light as an ignition source for its main burner. Lighting that requires crawling under the car and touching a blowtorch to a small hole.

It then takes about 10 minutes to start building steam, which is pretty quick by steam-car standards. The White has a steam generator instead of a conventional boiler, with coils that allow small amounts of water to be heated at a time. That's quicker than heating all of the water at once, as in a boiler-equipped car, Jay says. It also means the steam is used as it's produced rather than built up and then used.

1909 White Model M steam car on Jay Leno's Garage

1909 White Model M steam car on Jay Leno's Garage

Steam engines deliver lots of torque and actually work better when hot, Jay says. Unlike internal-combustion engines, the goal is to retain as much heat as possible in order to make more steam. Jay says the car like to run at about 700 degrees, will do 65 mph at full chuff (no pun intended), and go up to 150 miles on full tanks of water and fuel.

Jay demonstrates that the engine is quiet and can run as low as 25 rpm. Near the end of the video, he takes the car out for a drive and we can see him working the odd controls. For instance, the throttle is controlled by a wheel within the steering wheel.

According to Jay, White built about 13,000 of these cars, but many were melted down during World War II for the quality metals they used. Because of that, and the ravages of time, Jay says only 167 remain.

Watch the full video for more details on steam technology, and to see this centenarian steam car in action.