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The mid-Seventies American vision for the future of taxis relied on… steam propulsion?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Images via Museum of Modern Art.

Not a single American auto manufacturer participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1976 exhibit dedicated to exploring the future of taxis. Conspicuous in its absence was Checker, the carmaker that had throughout its entire existence been synonymous with taxis and other utilitarian versions of the automobile. However, two upstart American companies did take part, and they both placed their bets on steam engines replacing internal combustion.

Steam may have last powered a production automobile in the early 1930s, but steam-powered automobiles saw a minor renaissance starting in the late Sixties following the creation of the California Air Resources Board. GM’s SE-101 and SE-124 experimental vehicles – a 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix and a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle, respectively – might be the most well known steamers of that era, but others cropped up here and there. The 1970 Clean Air Car Race saw another steam-powered Chevelle running under the Worcester Polytechnic Institute banner along with a steam-powered AMC Javelin running for the University of California San Diego. William P. Lear began his steam propulsion experiments at about this time, ultimately putting steam engines in a handful of buses and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. And the Environmental Protection Agency built a Ford LTD and a Chevrolet Caprice with Rankine cycle steam engines in the early Seventies.

The trend seemed to peter out again not long afterward, but the U.S. Department of Transportation still had some funds left to spend on steam cars when Emilio Ambasz, MoMA’s curator of design, began putting together “The Taxi Project: Realistic Solutions For Today” in May 1974. MoMA had already pioneered the consideration of automobiles by art museums with its 1951 exhibit that focused on high-end and highly styled cars, “8 Automobiles,” but with The Taxi Project, Ambasz intended to reconsider “the unsung heroes of urban transportation” with greater emphasis on access for disabled people and on reducing pollution and traffic congestion.

“Since the Museum’s goal was not to engage in an academic exercise but rather to obtain the cooperation of the automobile industry in producing actual working prototypes which could be tested by professional taxi drivers in American cities, independent designers and schools of design were not consulted,” Ambasz wrote in the catalog for the exhibit. “In all cases, the Museum stressed a pragmatic approach. The aim was to achieve a realistically designed vehicle which could be produced at a reasonable price, and which would better serve the needs of the taxi industry, the driver, and the passengers.”

According to a press release announcing the exhibit, which took place in the summer of 1976, MoMA approached “more than 10 American vehicle manufacturers,” (among them the Big Three, AMC, Checker, Mack Trucks, Grumman, and International Harvester) and “each of them declined to participate.” Odd, considering USDOT not only gave MoMA $70,000 to organize the exhibit, it also was ready to hand out $1 million contracts to American car companies willing to develop low-pollution compact conceptual taxis, according to an October 1976 Popular Science article.

Ambasz wasn’t exactly thrilled that no American car manufacturer elected to participate. “Even allowing for the troubled state of the economy in the period 1974-75 and the many problems now facing the automobile industry, the negative decision of the American manufacturers seems shortsighted,” he wrote. “It is possible to draw unfavorable inferences from the reluctance of the American automobile industry to confront what others regard as an opportunity for social benefits and financial rewards.”

Without American carmaker participation, Ambasz invited foreign carmakers with plans to build factories in the United States to participate in the project. It’s not clear whether USDOT offered contracts to those carmakers as well.

Two American companies, neither of them established carmakers, did step up to the plate via a USDOT open-bid competition. Steam Power Systems out of San Diego had previously gotten contracts from the state of California for a couple steam-power projects, one a bus (that went up against Lear’s steam-powered buses) and the other a car called the Dutcher. Its design for MoMA’s Taxi Project specified a compound counterflow four-cylinder steam engine good for 66 horsepower driving the rear wheels of a Japanese-looking minibus capable of squeezing in five passengers.

The other, American Machine and Foundry out of Goleta, California, specified a single-acting uniflow two-cylinder engine from Carter Enterprises good for 105 horsepower driving the front wheels of what looked like a Plymouth Voyager – complete with sliding rear doors – 10 years before the first Chrysler minivan (and what didn’t look much like the rendering at the top of this article).

The two hit MoMA’s floor alongside prototypes from three European carmakers, none of which used steam. Volvo (which qualified for the exhibit with its plans for a 100,000-car capacity factory in Chesapeake, Virginia – plans that were later scrapped) proposed a diesel-powered hatchback with a wide sliding passenger door. Interestingly, it also included a safety bar – basically a padded version of the bar that swings down to keep riders secured in a carnival ride – for the rear seat passengers. A 70hp Ricardo six-cylinder diesel engine drove the front wheels through a system somewhat similar to the Oldsmobile Toronado’s front-wheel-drive system, though with a longitudinal transmission feeding the chain transfer and then a driveshaft heading forward to the front axle.

Volkswagen (which qualified for the exhibit with its plans for what became the Westmoreland assembly plant) proposed its Type 2 Microbus, outfitted with a second sliding door on the driver’s side and a few additional amenities. To qualify for the fuel economy aspect of the exhibit, the company hybridized the Type 2’s 1600cc flat-four with a 130-volt Bosch motor good for 16 kilowatts of continuous duty. A giant bank of batteries where the front passenger seat would normally be helped to drive the motor.

Alfa Romeo didn’t qualify for the exhibit because it had no plans for U.S. production at the time, but it went ahead with a Giorgetto Giugiaro design with dual sliding doors that MoMA included. For comparison’s sake, MoMA also put a London black cab on the exhibit floor.

The exhibit ran from June through September 1976. While Ambasz maintained that “taxicabs are not the panacea for the problems of mass transportation, but, as this project shows, they can go a long way toward providing us today with better urban transportation,” the exhibit didn’t appear to move the needle when it came to taxi design for New York City. Volvo did test a small fleet of 244s there in the early Eighties, according to Ben Merkel and Chris Monier’s “The American Taxi: A Century of Service,” but that experiment didn’t last long. Checker, even though it didn’t participate in the exhibit, did start to consider smaller and more fuel efficient taxi designs in the late Seventies (and added propane-fueled engines to the option list), but kept its lumbering A11 until the company ceased auto production in 1982. After Checker exited the market, New York cab companies largely turned to the Chevrolet Caprice and then the Ford Crown Victoria, neither a paragon of fuel efficiency or compact design.

As for the cabs built for the exhibit, we know that the Volvo, which did conduct trial livery service in Europe, still exists in the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg. If the others still exist, we’ve yet to come across their whereabouts.