Everyone knows that something other than gasoline is the future. Oil can't last forever, no matter how miserly our engines get, and despite Tesla's recent relative success it's not like you see a Model S in every driveway. Hasn't anyone tried anything else? Well, it turns out, they have. A long time ago.
When the car industry was more like the Wild West rather than a like a few corporate titans competing for the family dollar, a lot of inventors were willing to try anything to get a leg up on the next guy. A lot of times that leg up would include more power or luxury, but every so often someone would hit upon the idea of using something other than gasoline to get their car going. That, of course, didn't always work.
Idea #1 – Lycopodium Spores
The picture above is considered to be quite possibly the very first internal combustion engine, the Pyréolophore. Created by Nicéphore Niépce, who later went on to invent photography, it ran on the dried spores of the Lycopodium plant, which is a type of fern. They create a big, impressive flash when burned, which is why its mostly used in magic tricks today.
Why it didn't work: Sure, they create a big flash, but not so much a big bang. You'd be hard pressed to get any sort of power out of one of these engines.
Idea #2 – Hydrogen Gas
The De Rivaz engine was an early competitor to the Pyréolophore, and was invented in 1804, and was attached to a small car-like concept in 1807. The hydrogen gas was mixed with oxygen in a combustion chamber to create a small explosion in order to drive a piston, much like in today's petroleum engines.
Why it didn't work: The Hindenburg disaster should provide all the evidence you need. Despite the reason for its destruction now being attributed to its flammable skin, hydrogen has a tendency to go "boom," and unlike in modern experimental hydrogen vehicles, where the element is cooled and compressed, the hydrogen itself isn't really manageable in gaseous form.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Idea #3 – Steam Power
The Stanley Steamer was actually a pretty neat idea. Steam powered trains, and they worked, so why not a car? The Stanley Steamer actually sported big power, too, with one Stanley even setting the world speed record over a mile in 1906 at over 127 mph.
Why it didn't work: Nowadays you just turn a key and off you go. To get a steam-powered car up and running you had to go outside, in the cold, in the rain, while you hated yourself for buying a steam-powered car, fuss with the lighter trying to start up the boiler, forgetting that you hadn't put water in it yet, cried, put water in, waited half an hour to get some steam going, and then you could finally go to the store to get some milk. But hey, at least you could do it quickly.
Photo credit: Donald Lee Pardue
Idea #4 – Gas Bag
Why keep your gas in a hard, secure, tank, when you can keep it in vapor form in a bag above your head? GENIUS! The fuel used was actually not crazy-flammable hydrogen, but crazy-flammable methane. Even better.
Why it didn't work: I don't think we need to examine horrific burn injuries for an explanation on this one.
Idea #5 – Nuclear Power
We've covered the Ford Nucleon before, but I just couldn't resist. A nuclear reactor in the back would hypothetically drive a steam generator to power the wheels, and you'd certainly have a healthy glow after taking it for a spin. You also might have a third arm. But don't worry about that.