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Full steam ahead for motoring pioneer

9th October 2014 Print
1902 Toledo

A steam-powered Toledo from the turn of the last century will be one of the stars of the Regent Street Motor Show on Saturday 1 November.

The car and owner Nick Howell, a Cornish fish merchant, will be hoping for top honours in the prestigious EFG International Concours d’Elegance, a centrepiece of the Regent Street Motor Show which turns the famous shopping street into a traffic-free zone for the day.

The Concours is open to around 100 veteran cars, all of which will be making their traditional pilgrimage from London to Brighton the following day.

If the Toledo does win an award it will cap a hugely eventful year for the car. It triumphed in this year’s Pebble Beach concours in America where it won the Chairman’s Trophy, prior to re-enacting a trip the very same car made from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon more than 112 years ago.

The car was bought as a restoration project by enthusiast Howell in 2004 and is believed to be one of only 14 steam-powered Toledos still in existence.

“I have rebuilt many veteran and vintage cars in the past but once I’ve got them running properly I tend to get bored with them. So about ten years ago when I started looking for another car to rebuild I chose a steam-powered car as getting one to run smoothly seems to be a never ending challenge!” said Howell.

He found the Toledo for sale at a farm auction in America in 2004 and in the course of delving into its history he discovered that its modifications – including a longer chassis and a larger than usual water tank – meant it was the very same steam car used by photographer Oliver Lippincott to make that pioneering drive from Flagstaff in Arizona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The car was made by the American Bicycle Company of Toledo, Ohio, in 1902 and took three days to cover the 67 miles to the edge of the Canyon.

After many years of sympathetic rebuilding – the car is remarkably original with only three small pieces of new wood needed to replace charred originals – the Toledo was invited to Pebble Beach.

And after its triumph there, it was shipped to Flagstaff for its second trip to the Grand Canyon.

Howell’s re-enactment over unmade forest tracks also took two days and due to poor weather turning the trail into a quagmire, it had to be towed the last 15 miles. Remarkably, the same fate befell the car in 1902, when it was dragged over the final few miles behind a horse as the weather turned.

Driving a steam car requires a very different technique to driving a petrol-powered car. For a start it takes about half an hour to build up steam before the car can move and then it needs around a gallon of water for every mile it covers.

“With our larger water tank we can carry about 43 gallons, so we needed to top up twice on the journey,” said Howell. Unlike Lippincott, who had to make detours to find water butts usually used by horses, Howell had the luxury of a back-up crew in large 4x4s to carry extra supplies.

The Toledo will need to take on more water when it drives the 60-plus miles from London to Brighton on the Sunday, but if it makes it Howell will be overjoyed. “We’ve attempted the Run in the Toledo for the last two years but failed to get to Brighton both times so we are hoping this year it will be third time lucky.”

And if it does run smoothly all the way to Brighton, Howell might start looking for another challenge. “We found a museum in America with an unrestored White steam car, a much more sophisticated machine than the Toledo. I might suggest a swap – they get a significant piece of American automotive history in full working order and I get my next test!”

The free-to-view Regent Street Motor Show means the street is closed to traffic from Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Circus, so that enthusiasts, shoppers, London residents and tourists can pore over a huge variety of mouth-watering machinery embracing everything from motoring’s pioneers to the latest supercars. Last year it attracted more than 400,000 visitors.

This year, there will be hundreds of cars on display including modern performance cars, family cars, eco cars and racing cars as well cars from motoring’s past.

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1902 Toledo