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Henry J. Kaiser had a Manhattan converted to steam. It nearly led to crate steam-car engines

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1952 Kaiser Manhattan. Image courtesy OldCarBrochures.

We live in a golden age of crate engine options. From a catalog, one can order Hemis, LSes, even electric motors. And who knows, maybe we could have also had crate steam engines had a steam-powered Manhattan that Henry J. Kaiser himself commissioned proved successful.

By all accounts, Kaiser was pretty open-minded when it came to automobile design and technology. While the sedans that he built with Joe Frazer ended up having fairly typical for the time front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, steel-body-on-frame configuration, Kaiser initially envisioned a front-wheel-drive, fiberglass-bodied compact and over the years entertained outlandish ideas like Sterling engines, according to Richard Langsworth’s “The Last Onslaught on Detroit.”

Henry Kaiser… welcomed clean-slate thinking, even if on occasion the slate might be cracked. “The old man’s personal staff was just nutty as hell,” recalls a contemporary associate. “Really as nutty as a fruit cake. [They were] just long-haired dreamers who were called ‘long-term postwar planners.'”

So it tallies that, even after Kaiser-Frazer automobile production wrapped up in 1955 (in the U.S., at least), Henry J. Kaiser still wanted to experiment with cars. This time, instead of a room full of long-haired dreamers, he turned to William Besler.

More than 20 years prior, Besler, along with his brother George, bought all the patents, tooling, and leftover inventory from Doble Steam Motors and took it all home to Davenport, Iowa, to continue developing steam engines. Along with Abner Doble, Charles Keen, Forrest Detrick, and a few others, the Beslers were about it when it came to steam car development in the States between the early Thirties and the late Sixties.

According to steam car historian Jim Crank, Kaiser initially approached Besler with the idea of converting a Henry J into a battery-electric vehicle. “He thought that was going to be the coming thing,” Crank wrote. Besler convinced Kaiser instead to go with steam power, in part to determine how feasible it would be to convert modern cars to steam power and, in turn, whether he could go on to offer crate steam engines as replacements for modern internal combustion engines.

Kaiser’s only stipulation was that the whole package fit under the Manhattan’s hood, so Besler, along with H. Brooks Gardner, got to work designing a 90-degree V-4 single-acting cross-compound uniflow-type steam engine that bolted to the Manhattan’s original bellhousing. As Crank described the rest of the car:

The Kaiser was certainly nothing radical. The cute feature was Bill’s use of the windshield visor as the mount for the primary condenser. Then the steam was led to a second condenser in the front of the car where the usual radiator was mounted. So the car really had good condensing.

The engine dyno tested at 85 horsepower at 3,200 RPM, 750 PSI, and 750 degrees Fahrenheit (according to another source, it ran at just 400 PSI). According to Crank, the steam-converted Manhattan could run up to 85 MPH with a driver and five passengers. Another account claimed that it had a range of 50 miles and only suffered from vapor lock on its test drives. (Besler typically ran fuel oil or gasoline to heat the boiler.)

Kaiser reportedly wanted nothing to do with it once Besler showed him the Manhattan in 1958. Besler, for his part, expressed dismay at the car’s performance, noting that the Manhattan’s engine bay didn’t provide adequate room for a boiler or steam generator large enough to provide more power. “I only have apologies for the poor performance of the accumulation of spare parts known as the Kaiser conversion,” Besler wrote.

Besler decided he needed a larger engine bay, and he eventually bought a 1960 Plymouth to transfer the Kaiser steam engine into. At the same time, he started asking around to see if it was even worth his time to develop a steam engine conversion kit for modern cars. According to Crank, Besler had his eye on starting out with a conversion kit for the Corvair. The results of his survey, however, frustrated his plans just as much as the Kaiser experiment did.

“Replies regarding steam cars generally indicated a desire for a plant to fit into a modern automobile chassis and which would be competitive in every respect with internal combustion engines including price!” Besler wrote in a letter to the Steam Automobile Club of America in February 1960. “It is our belief that the steam plant should not be considered to replace the more efficient, simpler and cheaper Otto cycle engine.”

According to Crank, some respondents to Besler’s survey thought such a kit should have cost as little as $2,000 – which would have bought a Corvair brand new in 1960 – while Besler imagined that a series-produced steam-conversion kit would have more appropriately cost anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000. “Bill said to me in disgust that he wouldn’t have anything more to do with such a program, to say nothing of the very real risk of lawsuits if anything went wrong,” Crank wrote. “He gave up on the idea of making and selling any form of conversion kit.”

Instead, Besler continued to bounce around the idea of converting that 1960 Plymouth, and some of the development work he put into the Manhattan informed the half-a-283 50hp V-4 that Besler built in 1969 for Chevrolet’s SE-124 steam-powered Chevelle.

He never did build the Plymouth. Instead, the Manhattan retained its steam engine and remained in the Besler factory until after his death, when his daughter sold the Manhattan. Vandals and rust destroyed the Manhattan, but its remains and the steam engine and related components now reside in Kimmel’s collection in Michigan. Kimmel said he does have a second Manhattan to use for putting the steamer back together, but he’s mainly concerned with preserving the engine and boiler at this point.