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The Plymouth-based Keen Steamliner steam powered car

by Jim Benjaminson;
© 1982 The Plymouth Bulletin
Reprinted by permission

At the turn of the century, when the automobile industry was in its infancy, there were countless makes of cars, and it was truly anybody’s guess as to which form of motive power would propel the new industry. Gasoline powered engines were noisy and smelly but, by and large, reliable. Electric cars were silent, reliable, and clean, but had limited travel ranges before their batteries had to be recharged — a problem that still plagues them today.

Keen Steamliner - Plymouth based steam powered car

Then there was steam. Steam was silent, smooth, and reliable, but most people neither understood the principles of steam power, nor did they want to be bothered with the preparations required to get the boiler fired up to convert water into steam. Water froze in cold weather, which limited the use of steam to warm parts of the country. Both steam and electricity for automobile power died ignoble deaths — or, at least, they faded into oblivion.

F. E. and F. O. Stanley, twin brothers from Newton, Massachusetts, marketed perhaps the most famous steam car in their Stanley Steamer, which was built from 1897 to 1927. Still, the man who may have advanced steam power the furthest was Abner Doble of San Francisco. Doble’s steam car was not nearly so well known as the Stanley, partly because it was very expensive, but mainly because Doble was such a perfectionist that few cars were built.

After the Stanleys and Doble, there were no commercial steam powered cars for a long time — prompting men like Charles Keen of Madison, Wisconsin, to build their own steam car. And when Keen did build his own steam car at least part of the car was built around a Plymouth.

I first became aware of the Keen Steamliner in January, 1979 when I received a letter from Arthur Phillips of Long Beach, California, who wrote: “Perhaps I could be admitted as a member (to the Plymouth Club) by submitting a picture of a Plymouth I own which has been modified to steam power by Mr. Charles Keen of Madison, Wisconsin under the able direction of the famous steam car builder Abner Doble. ... The car is known as the Keen Steamliner. ... One steam magazine states 'the first mention of this car was in a letter by Mr. Keen which was published in October, 1947, referring to the construction of this car which is known as Keen Steamliner No. 1, starting in 1943 and indicating development was nearing completion at that time'. This (letter) may possibly be referring to the steam equipment and not to the complete car but I rather think it was referring to the complete car. At any rate it seems quite obvious it is not a 1950 Plymouth!”

In subsequent letters, Mr. Phillips wrote, “It has a Stanley Steamer engine connected directly to the differential by spur gears. The car has a monotube coiled boiler and top fired burner that raises steam in one minute. The engine is encased and runs in oil. The steam pressure and temperature are automatically controlled.”

Mr. Phillips claimed that Stanley Ellis, when he owned the car, drove the Steamliner “every day for ten years.” After acquiring the car himself, Mr. Phillips worked on it for some time and “had the car running after about a year’s work, but the automatic heat control was not set properly, which was adjusted, but then a pinhole blew in the steam generator (boiler).”

Referring to Mr. Ellis’ book, “Smogless Days,” Ellis wrote that he visited Mr. Keen and took a ride in another Keen Steamliner which made him “yearn for a modern steamer.” Ellis wrote, “Mr. Keen had built an earlier model about 1950 and it was still in existence in other hands. I contacted the owner and it (Steamliner No.1) was shipped to me from Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1960.”

Ellis made further references to the car, stating that the car had a Stanley 20 horsepower engine although the rest of the car was “pure Keen - beautifully made.” Ellis stated that in talking to Charles Keen he made reference to the fact that Abner Doble had helped him with some features of the car.

Stanley Ellis drove the Keen Steamliner No.1 on a regular basis through the first winter he owned the car. Although the steam apparatus worked faily well he was not at all satisfied with the body: “The only undesireable feature was the body and chassis which came from a Plymouth coupe of 1950. This meant room for only three passengers including driver and there was insufficient ventilation from the smallish windows. In hot weather this became intolerable. Fifty to sixty miles per hour was about its nicest cruising speed, but the limiting factor was not the powerplant at all, but the old Plymouth chassis. It was stiff and bouncy and far from comfortable at high speed.”

Following some minor problems with the automatic steam controls, Mr. Ellis sold the car back to its builder, Charles Keen, and Keen towed the car from Ellis’ Cape Cod home back to Wisconsin.

Just how much of the Keen Steamliner is a Plymouth? And what year Plymouth? There is no doubt that the front sheetmetal of the Steamliner is from a pre-war Plymouth, in all probability a 1942 model. It would only stand to reason that if Keen were working on the car as early as 1943 that he would have to be using parts from earlier model cars. However, several items in the overall picture of the Steamliner just do not fit into place.

Bill Leonhardt of Lincoln, Nebraska located a copy of Stanley Ellis’ book, which provided better photographs (which can’t be reproduced because of copyright infringments). The photos did reveal several items which simply are not proper on a Plymouth body. If it was indeed built on a Plymouth chassis, the wheelbase had been shortened considerably from its normal 117 inches. That would explain the harsh, bouncy ride: early Plymouths had anything but a harsh ride!

Even more puzzling was the front door of the coupe, which had a vertical rear door post, while all Plymouth coupes since 1936 had a forward slanting rear post. And the door handle was located BENEATH the chrome belt line mouldings rather than mounted flush on the moulding as was Plymouth's practice for many years. What really stood out, however, was the exposed lower door hinge as well as the pedestal mounted windshield wipers. At rest the wipers pointed outward rather than pointing inward.

In researching the Steamliner further, I contacted the Steam Automobile Club of America at their Pleasant Garden, North Carolina address. In talking with Sharon Yow, secretary to club president R. A. Gibbs, she offered to send me a copy of their club magazine which contained a photograph of several Keen Steamliners. The photo with this article is from that issue. In talking with Ms. Yow she stated she was under the impression that the Steamliner was based on a Chevrolet body, not that of a Plymouth!

This lead to researching George Dammen's book "Sixty Years of Chevrolet" which soon revelaed that the '39 Chevrolet had the door handles mounted beneath the belt line mouldings, pedestal mounted windshield wipers and, as the clincher, the lower door hinge was exposed, just as were those items on the Keen car.

Following these revelations attempts are now being made to contact the current owner of the Steamliner in hope that perhaps he can shed further light on the car. Is the chassis that of a 1942 Plymouth or is it that of a 1939 Chevrolet? Is the body Chevrolet or were pieces of a Chevrolet mated to a Plymouth body?

There is no doubt in this writer's mind that the body is at least partially that of a '39 Chevrolet but there is also no doubt that at least the front fenders and hood are from a 1942 Plymouth. The front grill bars have been modified somewhat to hide the car's identity but the "blackout" style short front fender trim and the stamping crease beneath the headlamps are pure 1942 Plymouth. The hood is also that of a '42 Plymouth although it has been modified to open "Buick style" from the sides rather than "alligator" style from the rear as did the original. Close examination also reveals that the hood trim mouldings do not have the same contours of the belt line mouldings on the car. The hubcaps are definately Plymouth and the wheels also appear to be, hinting that the front suspension may be Plymouth as well, as Plymouth wheels used a 5 bolt lug pattern which would not fit a Chevrolet as they used a 6 bolt lug pattern during that time. It is indeed unfortunate that Charles Keen passed away some years ago and cannot answer any of our questions about the car.

Bill Leonhardt, the club's resident '42 Plymouth detective and a native of Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Steamliner spent several years, contacted several people in the Lincoln area seeking further information about the car. Of three local steam enthusiasts, two remembered the Steamliner and one had ridden in the car on various occassions. This fellow gave Bill a lead as to where to find the widow of the car's Lincoln owner. In talking with her briefly she thought she may still have some photographs of the car. Hopefully her photo albums will reveal more information about the Steamliner in the future.

In talking with the man in Lincoln who was familiar with the Steamliner, Leonhardt was told it was this man's understanding that "the fellow that originally built the car was good at metal forming and had done an excellent job of the body modifications."

Without a doubt Charles Keen created a unique motor car. Where else on the face of this earth are you going to find a car that is part Stanley Steamer, part Chevrolet, and part Plymouth?

Interesting as you thought as I believe the body is mounted on a Willys chassis! The chassis is not Plymouth. The front and rear body I believe is Plymouth but from two different cars. There is no name or I.D. plate anywhere on the car that I can find relating to Plymouth or any other car except Willlys hub caps and the "Keen Steamliner" name plate. The splice is concealed by the top, which is made of fabricated steel tubing.

More definitive information

Since the original article in the Plymouth Bulletin, more information has come to light about Charles Keen and his Steamliners. The original Steamliner # 1 was built on a Willys chassis, using 1942 Plymouth front fenders and hood, 1939 Chevrolet cowl, dash and doors, and the rear deck lid of a 1940 Plymouth. The engine remains a Stanley.

Nearly every owner who had driven the car remarked that it had lots of power but all complained about the inadequate brakes on the car.

The car ended up in the hands of Bud McGee, a California pharmacist and car collector. Mr. McGee was killed in a plane crash returning from the Hershey, PA swap meet some years ago and the car was sold to a gentleman in England.

The car has since been shipped to England where it is undergoing a complete restoration. Its present owner has restored both a Whitney steamer and a Canadian built Brooks steamer---a "progress report" photo is on this page.

- Jim Benjaminson

Update from Ralph Hoffman: an actual Keen Steamliner test drive

In about 1946, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, my wife and I were privileged to ride in Mr. Keen's steam car. He owned a tool and die shop, as I recall, on the east end of Madison, Wisconsin. The shop was in the back of the lot and he said that with the exception of the trunk and doors, the sheet metal was handmade by one of his employees.

The car had a fire tube boiler as I recall, wire wound for strength, and when the boiler was started it took only 45 seconds to get up 600 psi boiler pressure. The sound was muffled. It used a 6 volt blower and atomized fuel oil. Mr. Keen claimed he could drive from Madison to Milwaukee, about 85 miles, on $.85 worth of oil.

The lot next door was about five feet lower than Mr. Keen's lot, and he headed straight for it, at 90 degrees, scooting down to the lot next door for about 30 feet, then put the car in reverse, and went back up at the same speed.

That was the end of the ride. I'll never forget it.

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