Chapter seven from the book Howard - The Amazing Mr. Hughes by Noah Dietrich

Fawcett Publications, Inc. 1972 – paperback

Front cover (photo)

Back cover (photo)


The Hughes Steamer

    Like most young men, Howard Hughes was fascinated with automobiles. Unlike most other young men, he could afford to indulge his whims. And he did.
    When I first joined Howard, he was the owner of four remarkable driving machines. When he went to New York on his honeymoon, he bought two Rolls Royces, his and hers. His was a phaeton, hers a limousine. Both were shipped out to California by train.
    Earlier, in Houston, he had become fascinated with steam cars. He enjoyed racing the other blades on Houston streets, and he discovered that the steamer could best any other automobile in a drag race; the steamer had as much power from a standing start as it did at full speed.
    So Howard bought two steamers—a Stanley and a Doble. He had both shipped to California. He also owned a Cadillac, but he left that in Houston.
    Like some of today's ecologists, Howard in 1926 was convinced that the steamer was the car of the future. No matter that they required a long time to work up steam. Or that they needed a water refill every sixty or seventy miles. Howard was convinced that those drawbacks could be cured by sound engineering.
    And so he set himself the task of creating and manufacturing a revolutionary new automobile, the Hughes Steamer.
    Where to start?
    Howard decided to pilgrimage to that center of scientific knowledge, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He went directly to the president himself, Dr. Robert Millikan, the famed physicist who had won the Nobel Prize a few years before.
    "I want to build a steam car which will be practical enough for general use," Howard announced. "I need engineering help—men who understand the dynamics of steam and can supply them to a workable automobile."
    Dr. Millikan considered the problem of the brash young Texan and referred him to a couple of recent Caltech graduates, Howard Lewis and Bruce Burns.
    Howard contacted the two engineers, and they were willing to work for him, especially when he mentioned the handsome salaries he was willing to pay. He outlined his challenge: "I want a steamer that will get underway in twenty seconds, starting from a dead stop. With the two steamers I've got, I have to wait two to five minutes to build up enough steam to make them move. Why, if I had a fire in my garage, I might not be able to get them out in time.
    "Another thing—I want a steamer that will run from Los Angeles to San Francisco on one filling of water."
    It was a large order—a steamer that would start operating almost as fast as a gasoline engine, and one that would travel four hundred miles without stopping for water. The two Caltech men seemed willing to tackle the task, and Howard installed them in a workshop on Romaine Street near the Sunset Strip.
    Howard devoted himself to making movies and paid little heed to the two young engineers on Romaine. It was my chore to see that the Hughes Tool Company profits kept coming through to pay for both the steamer and Howard's movies.
    Burns and Lewis started by buying a French car with a tubular frame and individual wheel suspension. They removed the motor, stripped the car down to the chassis, and used the shell on which to build the Hughes Steamer.
    The whole venture seemed fallacious from the start, and I tried to tell Howard so.
    "It's really sort of a hobby with me," he admitted.
    "How many cars could you turn out a year?" I asked.
    "I doubt if we could make more than twenty-five to fifty."
    "How much would they cost?"
    "Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty thousand."
    "Who could afford to buy them at that cost?"
    "Oh, I think some of my sportsmen friends would like to own them."
    "And supposing they don't?"
    "Well then," he said, "at least I'll have a dandy new car every year."
    There was no arguing with that kind of logic. So I continued pouring more of the tool company profits into the steamer. This went on for three years, and the bill mounted to $550,000.
    Howard rarely paid a visit to the Romaine workshop. I couldn't understand his lack of regard for this expensive project of his. Later I realized that Howard reacted in two divergent ways to projects he initiated. Either he ignored the work and let the creative people proceed unhindered, or else he injected himself into the operation to a maddening degree, often fouling up the works entirely.
    In this case, he ignored.
    Meanwhile, Howard fell in love with another automobile. It was a Rolls Royce roadster which a Hollywood dealer had for sale. Howard insisted on buying it, not only as a runabout for himself; he thought the chassis would be ideal for the Hughes Steamer.
    He had lost interest in the Rolls phaeton which he had purchased on his honeymoon, and sought to turn it in on the roadster. But dealer would not meet the price that Howard wanted, so the phaeton was placed in the dealer's lot on consignment—if a customer came up with Howard's price, a sale would be consummated.
    Howard was happy, but I was suspicious. We had paid for the roadster, but the dealer failed to produce the bill of sale.
    I visited the dealer's showroom, and he gave me an adroit stall. He failed to take me in, and I noticed on his desk some correspondence from a bank. After I left him, I went to the bank and explained my concern.
    "I really shouldn't tell you this," the banker said, "but that dealer has a seven thousand dollar loan on that roadster."
    Returning to the dealer, I confronted him with the information. He acquiesced, and Howard received unencumbered title to the roadster. But now the dealer had possession of the phaeton, and it was nowhere to be found.
    It was my business to protect my boss's interests. I made some inquiries at garages around Los Angeles. Finally I located the phaeton—it was at the Pacific Mutual garage in downtown Los Angeles. I quickly sent a couple of mechanics to the garage to put a chain and padlock on the front spring so the car couldn't be driven away.
    But when I arrived at the garage to claim the phaeton, it was gone. the dealer had arrived before me and had raised enough threats to convince the garage men to file the chain and let hem drive away.
    I returned to my office and began contemplating my next move. A telephone call solved my problem.
    "Do you represent Howard Hughes?" a voice asked.
    "Well, I found a bunch of keys with his name on them."
    I found out where he was and said, "Stay right where you are. I'll be there with a fifty dollar reward."
    I sped to Hollywood Boulevard, claimed the keys, and paid the reward. Then I started driving in concentric circles, examining every garage and driveway until I located the phaeton. I put the key in the ignition and drove it away.
    Another challenge mastered. Howard had his phaeton back from the crooked dealer. And he had possession of the roadster that was to be the base on which his Hughes Steamers were to achieve fame and prosperity.
    Oh, yes, the steamer.
    The two Caltech geniuses continued laboring away at the Romaine Street plant. Finally they issued the word: it's ready!
    It was one of the few times that I saw Howard in a state of real anticipation. He and I went to the Romaine Street location and were ushered by Burns and Lewis into the presence of the completed automobile. It was truly handsome. But then, it should have been, considering the half-million dollars that went into its development.
    The steamer was a five-passenger open-top touring car, low-slung and more attractive than the big Stanley Steamer. Howard circled the car with a quizzical expression, then interrogated the engineers on its performance.
    "It will travel four hundred miles on one load of water and can start almost as fast as a gasoline car," he was assured.
    "Amazing," he said. "How on earth did you manage that?"
    They explained that it was a matter of water condensation. The body of the car was a network of radiators.
    "You mean the entire body is composed of radiators, including the doors?" Howard asked.
    Burns and Lewis nodded.
    Howard thought for a moment. "Then supposing I'm driving along and some other car hits me broadside," he said. "What is the result?"
    He failed to elicit a reply, and he continued with his logic: "I'd get scalded to death—right?"
    "It's possible," one of the engineers admitted.
    Without pondering further, he said, "Dismantle it, get some torches, and cut it up in pieces."
    He walked out of the workshop, and I followed behind.
    "Noah, you see to it that they cut it up into pieces," he said. "Small pieces."