"Steam Tactics"

Kipling as
an early motorist



(This note on Kipling as an enthusiastic early motorist was written for the ORG in the 1960s)



[December 3rd 2008]

Kipling's introduction to motoring

Although Kipling has claimed rather earlier experience, his first serious interest in motors and motoring in England seems to have been aroused in October 1899, when Mr. Harmsworth of the Daily Mail, the future Lord Northcliffe, came down to Rottingdean in “one of those motor-car things” and invited him to try it.

A twenty-minute trip from which “we returned white with dust and dizzy with noise” converted the Kiplings and within two months they had acquired their first car, on hire from a Brighton agency at three and a half guineas a week, which included “the driver”.

Kipling's early cars

  1. 'This hireling is described as a Victoria-hooded', [i.e., it had a hood like a ‘Victoria’, an open carriage seating two people with a hood over the rear of the carriage], 'carriage-braked', [brakes applied by shoes rubbing on the circumference of the wheel], 'single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed-ignition Embryo which at times could cover eight miles an hour . . . . But we went to Arundel and back, which was sixty miles, and returned in the same ten-hour day!'

  2. His second car – the first of his own – was purchased in the following season, i.e., 1900, after returning from South Africa. This was: 'a steam car called a Locomobile, whose nature and attributes I faithfully drew in a tale called ‘Steam Tactics’. She reduced us to the limits of fatigue and hysteria, all up and down Sussex.' We shall deal with her in more detail presently.

  3. Within a year, apparently on 18th June, 1901: 'Next came the earliest Lanchester, whose springing, even at that time, was perfect.. But no designer, manufacturer, owner nor chauffeur knew anything about anything. The heads of the Lanchester firm would, after furious telegrams, visit us as friends (we were all friends in those days) and sit round our hearth speculating Why What did That.'

    The heads concerned were Dr. F.W. Lanchester, E.R.S., the designer and his brother, George Lanchester, the works manager, who is said to have delivered at least one of Kipling’s cars to the door of “Bateman’s” in person.

    Perhaps Kipling had this car in mind when he briefly referred to Sir Michael Gregory’s car ("Steam Tactics", page 188): 'It was a claret-coloured petrol car and it stopped courteously, as good cars will at the sight of trouble.' Be that as it may, though the new Lanchester with its internal combustion engine and fine springing was a great advance not only on the American steam Locomobile but on most British cars as that instant, she was still a source of trouble. So much so, that Kipling christened her “Jane Cakebread” after a contemporary figure who was reported as having appeared in court more than ninety times to answer to charges of “disorderly conduct”. Fifty years afterward, Mr. George Lanchester recalled that on one occasion the firm received a telegram from Kipling:

    JANE DISEMBOWELLED ON VILLAGE GREEN, DITCHLING. PLEASE COLLECT YOUR DISORDERLY EXPERIMENT

  4. Again within a year, on 5th June, 1902, Kipling received another Lanchester which has generally been taken to be the original of Kysh's 'big, black-dashed, tonneaued 24-horse ‘Octopod’ in which he 'hypnotised the fowl and dazzled the rooster’ . [this Editor is less convinced: as suggested in the notes, at Page 201, line 1, even this Lanchester – only 18 h.p. – would probably not have been capable of making the round trip as described]. In any event, it was clearly a major step forward.
Early motoring conditions in England

Up to 1896, the development of “horseless carriages” in England was all but strangled by the Red Flag law, which required such vehicles to be preceded by a citizen carrying a red flag by day and a red lamp at night, and by punitive charges at toll gates and bridges.

Even a year after it had gone, in 1897 'less than twenty people, all of them enthusiasts, daily execrated by the public at large, possessed a private motor vehicle'. Garages and petrol stations did not become common roadside features overnight. What with primitive engines, the lack of what the Second World War and NATO have taught us to call “logistic support”, and the hostility of the overwhelmingly conservative element of the island race, it is no wonder that the enthusiastic pioneers 'were all friends in those days', or that they stopped courteously at the sign of trouble – a practice now uncommon except in countries regarded as still under-developed.

Special characteristics of the 'Locomobile Steam Car' of 1900

Amongst the advantages claimed for the steam car were complete silence, whether stopped or in action, and great flexibility on the hills. [There were no clattering valves, nor whining gear-box, nor explosive exhaust: and the Stephenson link motion fitted was, in effect, an infinitely variable gear-box, thus, as stated, giving great flexibility – the Ford Model ‘T’ of 1909, for example, had only two gears]

As "Steam Tactics" indicates, however, it was by no means simple to manage. Power was developed in an upright boiler some 14 inches in diameter and about the same height, with 300 tubes of ½-inch bore. Strength to withstand a pressure of 250 lb. per square inch (approx 18 Kg per Sq. Cm) achieved, when steam had been raised, directly under the driver’s seat[!], was supplied mainly by layers of piano wire wound round the circumference.

The fuel was vapourised petrol. Starting from cold, it took from five to twenty minute to raise steam, depending upon a combination of skill and luck, and it was first necessary to build a roadside fire to heat a device variously described as the “torch”, “poker” or farther-fetched expressions. This vapourised the fuel in the beginning and lighted the boiler jets. Thereafter, the main fuel line passed through the boiler and there obtained the necessary heat, provided, of course, the flame had not gone out. Both fuel and boiler supply had to be maintained by pressure, and it was commonly found that the mechanical aids designed for this had to be supplied by “handraulic” operations.

The driver used his left hand to steer with a tiller and his right to operate the throttle and reverse gear, mounted on the off side [right-hand] side of the vehicle. As "Steam Tactics" reveals, the brakes could not be relied on to hold the car on a hill, and they had to be backed up by using the throttle and the reversing lever.

A chain not much larger than a bicycle chain conveyed power from the single cylinder engine. All the lubrication points, which were numerous, had to be attended to at frequent intervals, by hand. The wheels, also not much larger than those of a bicycle, had pneumatic tyres, Dunlop for choice.

Two interesting articles

Two articles, published in the Veteran and Vintage Magazine give an account of touring by steam car in 1900. In each case the car was a two-seater Locomobile a model that reached the English market just before the four-seater that Kipling bought, but there seem to have been no important mechanical differences. It is clear that Kipling had no need to stretch his imagination beyond the limits of normal artistic licence in depicting the hazards of travel by Locomobile.

In the earlier tour, made at Easter, the two enthusiasts concerned driving from Taunton towards Darlington, covered two hundred miles in slightly less than three days before they ran out of time and had to ship their car on by rail. In the course of their journey they had experienced a petrol fire, blown-out packing, a midnight search for water, and a brake failure, while on every hill they had to get out and walk alongside their car, controlling it from the off side.

The other adventure was a really stern test, the second motor trip from John o’ Groats to Lands End and the first – and perhaps the only one – made by steam car, undertaken in mid-December in a bitter winter. Advised that he could only rely on doing 16 miles to the gallon, the intrepid pioneer, Mr. Hubert Egerton, cautiously based his plan on half that figure and even so, ran out of petrol on one occasion. He had to make the worst of the journey, through the Grampians, unaccompanied, to send his passenger on ahead to arrange for petrol to be available. In the absence of hood and dashboard, the position of the driver and passenger was, Egerton said: 'rather like sitting on a garden seat with no more protection than was provided by one’s own overcoat, while the garden seat meandered along through rain sleet and snow at anything between 10 and 20 m.p.h.'

Water consumption at the rate of 26 gallons to 20 miles meant that in the course of the 900-mile journey, which took twelve days, five tons of water had to be supplied to the boiler, mainly by collapsible bucket.

In fine pioneering spirit, Mr. Egerton recorded that the only mechanical failure was merely a rear axle bearing and this did not prevent the car from completing the journey with the axle only a little more than half cut through: but then he mentions casually that in the blizzards the fire was perpetually being blown out and re-lighted, damaging the burner, which took several hours to replace in a blizzard; the original brake-band and three spares were expended before reaching Cornwall; no spares remained for the driving belt; and water supply depended on hand pumping most of the way. The last 36 hours from Exeter were sleepless. Such were the trail-blazers.

Kipling's attitude towards motoring in 1904

In the face of conditions like this, not to mention the widespread early hostility towards motors and motorists, Kipling could fairly claim to have suffered for the sake of motoring.

He made this claim in a letter from Cape Town in April 1904 to the journalist author, Filson Young, whose acquaintance he had made in the liner Kinfauns Castle in 1900. Evidently written as a kindly gesture towards a junior member of the craft, the letter was included in Young’s book, The Complete Motorist, published in 1904.[It can also be found in Pinney, Volume 3 (pp. 149-152) dated April 1904]

It is probably enough to note that the vision and interest sustaining Kipling through these early trials was rewarded without undue delay. The owner of Bateman’s acknowledged that he would have doubled his asking price if he had shared Kipling’s faith. Three years after the Locomobile, Kipling could feel that motoring gave him freedom to come and go at will, yet enjoy seclusion in comfort. The chief end for him, however, had become the discovery of England, 'a land full of stupefying marvels and mysteries ... That is the real joy of motoring – the exploring of this amazing England.'

If, in his enthusiasm, he then went on to make exaggerated claims for the car as (for instance) 'the most efficient temperance advocate and the only Education Act at present enforced in Great Britain', we may wonder what he would have thought today, but should be tolerant and envious. Despite his usually realistic approach, in 1904 he still lived in an Age of Hope.

Some references


According to a note in the Daily Telegraph of 15th April 1954, Mr. A.F. Kent (who was believed by (the late) Mr. P.W. Inwood to have been the “original of Kipling’s “engineer” Leggat(t), (vide his note above, p. 177, line 18), recalled having delivered the infamous Locomobile from Bateman’s to a Mr. Prior of Cowdray Park in the summer of 1902. If this date is correct, Kipling’s first Lanchester and the Locomobile overlapped. After such a lapse of time, however, some allowance must be made for the possibility of error creeping in. According to Something of Myself, Kipling’s first visits to Bateman’s were made in the Locomobile, but Carrington, presumably with documentary support, says the car was out of order on the first two occasions..


[A.W.]

©Alastair Wilson and The Kipling Society. All rights reserved