A growing audience is succumbing to the lure of early steamers, resulting in some remarkable transactions


When eccentric collector George Milligen died in 2004, his family kept one of his cars when the others were sold. Five years later, they have decided to sell George's 1905 Gardner-Serpollet Type L steam car, only one of two known.

Bankrolled by wealthy American Frank Gardner, Parisian Leon Serpollet developed his flash tube boiler in 1888. By this means, small quantities of water are heated instantly rather than boiling a big kettle, so startup is reduced to a couple of minutes. A Serpollet took the land speed record at 75 mph, and the 18hp model was introduced in 1904.

This Type L Steamer was sold new in London to C.W. Wilding-Jones, who lived 150 miles away in Cheshire, but after him the car's history is sketchy until 1946. However, the trail since then is clear, and Milligen bought it in 1957. He drove it a great deal in his 47 years of ownership, recorded his trips in detail, and rebuilt and improved it mechanically. He and the car participated in the London-Brighton run in 1984, '85, '86, and '90 and would have been there in 2001, except the transporter broke down.

The car is large and sophisticated for its time, with Tulip Phaeton four-place coachwork, Cape Cart top, two-piece windshield, and a roll-forward cover for the chauffeur. Lights are Polkey oil headlights and Frankonia oil sidelights. Dashboard equipment includes a Watford 60 mph speedometer, Royal Motor Clock eight-day clock, and pressure and steam temperature gauges.

The car was dated 1904 by the Veteran Car Club in 1950, though subsequent evidence suggests it was built in early 1905. However; the period document means it is "grandfathered in" to the London-Brighton event.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1905 Gardner-Serplooet Type L
Years Produced:1904-05
Number Produced:Unknown
Original List Price:$3,000 (estimated)
Chassis Number Location:Plaque affixed to top of radiator grille
Engine Number Location:=
Club Info:The Steam Automobile Club of America
Alternatives:1904 Stanley Model C, 1904 White Model E, 1903 Turner Miesse 15hp
Investment Grade:B

This 1905 Gardner-Serpollet 18hp Type L Steamer sold for $345,100, including buyer’s premium, at the Bonhams Royal Air Force Museum sale in Hendon, England, on April 20, 2009.

While all eyes were on the Supermarine Spitfire sold by Bonhams for over $2.5m in their April sale, a rather more remarkable result occurred on quite a different lot. This Edwardian steamer from France flew, relatively speaking, 55% over its high estimate of $222k to sell at $345k. The sale of the Gardner-Serpollet Type L at such a level was clearly down to an auctioneer’s dream confluence of circumstances. A rare car, believed to be one of two surviving, out of well-known long-term ownership, and with a coveted VCC certification of eligibility for the London to Brighton run, it was sure to excite eager would-be owners.

A steadily growing audience is succumbing to the lure of both early cars and steam power, resulting in some remarkable transactions, including the two De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux vehicles in 2007, one of which brought $3.5m for an 1884 at Gooding & Company’s August 2007 Pebble Beach sale and the other $979k for the 1890 model at Christie’s Paris in February 2007.

Serpollet’s cars at top of the steam market

Gardner-Serpollet cars can be found in important collections worldwide, from the French National (Schlumpf) Museum in Mulhouse to the Larz Anderson Museum in Massachusetts. As stated in the catalog description, Gardner-Serpollet was to steamers as Bugatti, Maybach, or Leland are to gasoline vehicles.

The highest quality, expert engineering, and competition-proven high performance put Serpollet’s cars at the top of the market. That land speed record was only held for seven months, but let’s consider that in context. Such was the pace of progress in the early years of the century that no one retained it for more than eight months between 1902 and 1906, when it was reclaimed by a steamer once more from the internal combustion engines that had stolen it from Serpollet.

Bonhams reported this Gardner-Serpollet Type L Steamer sold to a European collector who intends to use it in events, presumably including the London-Brighton. Based on a number of sales of important cars from long-standing ownership, the European buyers seem to have begun to step up in a way they hadn’t in the recent past. It’s an encouraging sign for the worldwide market when added to the somewhat surprising continued health of most of the U.S. auction market so far in 2009.

Used regularly and well by its prominent owner, it is a veteran of four London to Brighton events. Although the nominal cutoff for London to Brighton is 1904, this 1905 Type L has been grandfathered in.

Granted an exemption

The VCC issued a 1904 Dating Certificate to this Gardner-Serpollet in June of 1950. It was then discovered many years later that it was an ’04 built in ’05. As it had been judged otherwise at such an early date, it has been granted an exemption to continue its eligibility. That ruling, along with the style of the body, the capacity of the boiler, and the well-known provenance, guaranteed a good result-the final price realized was high, but not outrageous.

Here’s why. Late cars are frequently sought after, as many are larger and far more comfortable for the London to Brighton than most of the early entrants. The very handsome Tulip Phaeton coachwork with well-padded, shaped seats, doors, and mahogany-framed windshield gives the driver and passenger of the Serpollet a practically limousine-like environment for the tour. Combine that with smooth steam power, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination.

It has often been noted that a car out of long storage should be carefully recommissioned before returning to road use. This is, of course, more important with a steam vehicle, which must be thoroughly safety-checked prior to its next start up.

Rest assured that wherever the new owner of this wonderful Gardner-Serpollet Type L Steamer wants to take it, he will be welcomed.

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