What exactly is going on with Steam Bicycles and the Law?

Anyone with even a passing interest in steam locomotion has probably heard the story of an enterprising cyclist – Sylvester H. Roper –  who had fitted the titular external combustion engine to his machine, garnered the unwanted attention of the fuzz, only to be released without charge when they couldn’t work out what he had actually done wrong.

Since then, a number of other cyclists have made attempts to apply the concept of steam power to two wheels, from Michaux-Perreaux of 1868 to Geoff Hudspith of the present day.  Interestingly, there seems to be a hiatus of machines from the Victorian period onwards, no doubt because steam power doesn’t scale down particularly well and internal combustion engines are generally a better option due to greater power density and ease of use.

Where the Law (probably) stands

Disclaimer:  This is NOT Legal Advice.  If you are seriously considering registering a Steam Bicycle for the public roads, consult a specialist legal professional on the subject.

Morbidly enough, the dearth of incidents involving steam bicycles has left me wishing that more people ran afoul of the law just so more information would be available.  The best I can really do is to read up on laws regarding both electric bikes and petrol bike kits, and attempt to amalgamate a rudimentary legal picture.

We’ll start with the basics:  Under UK law, all electric bikes are limited to a power output of 200 Watts, are limited to 15mph, and must feature a ‘Pedelec’ sensor to only run the motor while the pedals are turning.  That means no throttles, which is strike one against the steam bicycle.  The EU laws are more permissive, with maximums of 25km/h (15.5mph), and 250 Watts, but as far as I’m concerned the sooner we can adopt American laws the better; what could be better than an iron horse that only rears up when you want to try for a Darwin Award?

Surely building a 200 Watt Steam Bicycle is no different?

Although a like-for-like comparison between a steam engine and an electric setup is near impossible without fully examining the steam circuit, the Hudspith Steam Bicycle in it’s original condition was said to develop 1/4hp, or ~190 Watts, fairly comparable to a legal electric machine.  This, along with it’s top speed of 8mph, would be theoretically within the letter of the law, but as we’ll see, things aren’t so rosy in the real world beyond the numbers.

You see – regardless of whether you remain within the law or not – if you want to remain away from the fuzz on your electro-horse, the key to hiding in plain sight is to keep cycling the pedals at all times, refraining from burnouts and generally not doing silly shit like charging up a steep hill in a Swansea suburb at 30mph.  Electric machines also have a major benefit of lacking any major emissions of both the aural and gaseous kinds.  Only the first is true of steam bicycles, and neither is true of petrol bikes.

Various attempts have been made during wartime to make Steam Locomotives stealthy (as viewed from the air, mind) with varying levels of silliness.  None of these were particularly successful, however, with most attempts having adverse effects on the draughting and/or obscuring the driver’s view with smoke; not exactly the invisibility the designers had in mind.  In any case, with visibility distances of perhaps tens of metres, it is unlikely that solutions designed to work from kilometres away will do anything to disperse the visible vapours, particularly on cold days.

For those of us who want to follow the law – and make history it seems – what are my options?

Your first port of call is to obtain an Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) Inspection, the successor to the Single Vehicle Approval (SVA).  This is a test primarily concerned with whether a custom/import road vehicle is fit to drive on the road, whereby the driver is also required to operate the vehicle and any doors without difficulty.  Given that the primary concern of this test is operational safety, it is unlikely that your average bicycle will pass; large wheels, thin spokes and high speeds are not a good combination, especially when turning.

Similarly, when it comes to constructing your own frame, unless you are seasoned in the art of welding and structures, you might as well be wrapping yourself in red tape.  It’s a good bet that using the chassis from another motorcycle/moped, and building the steam engine and boiler gubbins around that, is likely to involve fewer headaches.

Speaking of which, boilers are legally considered explosive devices, and not without reason:

Given the distinctive lack of space available for a stoker and his shovel common to all two-wheelers, a manual approach to managing the water/burner levels is not an option, especially when you’re inevitably preoccupied with the road.  Thankfully, advances in electronics in recent years mean that building an automatic stoker is – relatively-speaking – childs play.  Still, government officials are a nervous bunch when it comes to personal liability, so good luck convincing them of your electrical and coding prowess.

Once the chassis and boiler have been tamed, it should be a matter of building the engine and building a suitable control system.  Beyond that, you’ll need the usual suspects:

  • MOT Certificate
  • Insurance (from who?)
  • Register the vehicle with the DVLA (as what?)
  • Vehicle Excise Duty
  • L Plates (If you lack a full motorcycle license)
  • Crash Helmet conforming to EU Regulations

In conclusion

Annoyingly, this is probably one of those posts which is just a thousand-word way of saying “no-one really knows”, mostly because the rigmarole of building a steam-powered bicycle for the public roads under modern legislation has never been attempted before.  The legal hurdles of the IVA Inspection alone are enough to make even the second coming of Brunel shudder.

Still, if you’d like to attempt it, feel free to get in touch.  In the meantime, I’m sure the idea of a steam moped will jump out at me once I’ve got some money to incinerate.