Gas, Electric Or Steam? Car Shopping, 100 Years Ago

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A Ford Model T sits at the Marshall Steam Museum ready to be fired up.

Buying a car today means choosing among dozens of makes and models, but a century ago, drivers had a more basic choice: what powered the wheels.

"You would have had to choose between gas, steam and electric," says Susan Randolph, executive director of the Marshall Steam Museum in Yorklyn, Del.

In the 1910s, Randolph says, there was no sure winner among the three types of technology. Choosing a car often came down to how it started up.

John Hopkins, a volunteer mechanic at the museum, has been working on antique cars here for nearly 20 years. To start a 1914 black Ford Model T — a gas car — he turns a crank on the front. It takes a couple of tries and some elbow grease.

"But you don't want to push down, because then if it decides to come up, that's when it can break your arm," Hopkins says.

For buyers who want a car that's a little less dangerous to start, there's the long, green 1913 Stanley steam car. It has its own drawbacks, Hopkins says, as he grabs a blowtorch to spark igniter fuel under the hood.

It's like a kettle on a stovetop: The water in the tank has to heat up before steam can power the engine. This takes 45 minutes, sometimes longer. If you don't want to use a blowtorch or wait 45 minutes, there's the all-electric 1916 Rauch and Lang.

"Because you didn't have to fire up anything; you didn't have to crank anything. You just put a key in and go," says Mark Russell, a museum volunteer. He says the car will go 20-25 mph on flat ground.

But they don't go terribly far. These cars needed electricity to charge, something not every household had 100 years ago. And they had a range of just 30 miles.

As history tells us, this vehicle and its technology faded into the past like a dying battery. With the advent of standard turn-key starters, it was the gas-powered car that would win this automotive arms race — at least until Tesla and other modern automakers came along to drive us into the future.

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A previous caption incorrectly identified a Ford Model T as a Stanley steam car.