It’s easy to forget that a century ago, gasoline-powered cars didn’t completely dominate the automobile market.
In 1900, roughly 40 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. were steam-powered. And in fact, when the Boston police bought one of the country’s first cop cars in 1903 it was running on steam.
About 40% of American-made cars in 1900 were steam-powered
The Boston PD’s 1903 cop car was a Stanley Steamer. But even though we might think of steam-powered vehicles as a joke today, these weren’t lightweights. They were known as some of the fastest cars around. The police force was quick to buy up more steam-powered cars whenever they could.
From the March 15, 1905 issue of The Horseless Age magazine:
The Boston Police Department, which has been making use of autos for some time, has decided to add two high-speed [steam-powered] runabouts, to be used on the parkways and boulevards of the city, in the early spring.
Some of the police department’s steam-powered cars didn’t last very long (one Boston PD steam car bought in 1905 lasted just over 7,000 miles before being decommissioned) but the cars could catch any speeders they were after.
There was the added benefit that the police force was hiring civilian chauffeurs (shown above in a 1903 illustration) who stayed with the vehicles when police officers needed to jump out and pursue a suspect.
Always on the hunt for the fastest vehicles available, the Boston PD purchased a Ross steam-powered vehicle in 1909, made in nearby Newtonville, Massachusetts.