1896 Roper Steam Bike, 1: Introduction

This project got its start when Pete Gagan showed up at my shop with his (freshly purchased) steam bike. It was built by Bob Jorgensen, of Memphis, who has since passed away. Bob had a very small shop, I'm told, but loved to tinker. His passion was steam, and this was the first of two steam bikes he built. It was the summer of '05, and I had barely started the Excelsior project, but figured it was okay to have another project on the side. I didn't really know what I was getting into. I had never had anything steam. Yes, there would be a lot of fabrication, but nothing too technical, I told myself... Bob did a good job on the steam part, but you can clearly see the frame is a modified woman's 10-speed, and a cheap one at that.

This is a photo of the real bike, built by Sylvester Roper. He built many things powered by steam. The story says he rode his steam bike to his steam boat, transferred the coals, cruised the waters for a few hours, came back, transferred more coals, and then rode home! This was the world's first motorcycle in reality, but has yet to be recognized as such. Sylvester died on this bike attempting a speed record when he had a heart attack at 77 years of age.

This bike is missing its mahogany cladding and foot-pegs, but is otherwise complete. I planned on building three bikes, and Pete wanted a better frame for his steamer.

Photo by Tim Reed, printed in "Motorcycles in Retrospect" magazine, Winter 2003. This is where Dick Winger enters the picture. Pete had a steam bike, and he didn't... so, he ordered RS001. (Roper steamer number one.) Due to my in-experience with steam, my initial estimate on both time AND labour was grossly inadequate. Sorry, Dick. The whole project was a learning experience for both of us. I know Dick learned a lot of patience! He talked about cost overruns, and every so often would say, "ka-ching... ka-ching!" He also talked to Bob Jorgensen, and got him to send plans for the steam engine. The scale is 1:1, but no mention of critical dimensions, or what metals to use. I didn't want to build the engine; I already had the Excelsior motor to contend with, so it got sub-contracted out .

I made a full scale drawing of the bike, and it's in the background behind these frame parts. I wanted to be able to unbolt the boiler from the frame; the boiler would be a stressed member.

and brazed together to look like a casting. . They hold a very nice set of angled roller bearings designed for a mountain bike. made from three pieces of steel.These are the top head tube lugs.

The bottom head tube lugs. and they too will look like castings. Fillet brazing will cover the Tig welding. .

then boring the two halves. .Machining the rear dropouts. I'm drilling.

Four sets finished. They hold the bearings that support the live axle. .

. on the frame jig. Too bad my digital camera refused to auto focus on the nearest dropout.Tack welded into place.

The frame is held to the boiler with ten bolts. .Frame and frame jig.

.Frame only.

) Autocad 12. .. I will do that one day. or other equally modern software.Designing the rear hub on my trust-worthy (but ancient. Thanks to those individuals who took the time to urge me to look into SolidWorks.

.Another chunk of 303 stainless gets chucked and turned. It's quite nice to work with.

from a Columbia bicycle over 100 years old. .Dick supplied the rims to get laced to this hub.

.Here are the six bearings used to support the rear wheel. Each end of the axle has a five degree taper for the eccentrics to bolt on to.

The steam engine has arrived. . and this is an early mockup of the drive train. There's nothing really you can buy. everything has to be made.

so it was a good start. .The leather seat top came from the Saddle Shop. It looks a lot like the original.

.Designing and making these bits was a little time consuming. ..

so you sit at the back.And this is the finished product. There's no support in the middle. The leaf spring was sent out for heat-treating before paint. .

. It's kind of like a small. is some "packing".This water pump is driven by the eccentric on the left side of the rear wheel. Quite effective when done properly. Under the big brass nut. dark. waxy rope that you coil and press into a small space before the nut squeezes down to force a seal.

It lets the steam out of the boiler and into the valving of the engine.Here's some of my working notes to build the throttle valve. . Maximum working pressure is 200 psi.

. You put steam oil in there.Thought / paper / metallic reality. Top right is the "displacement oiler" purchased from Coles. The engine body and piston are both made out of cast iron. Throttle valve partially assembled. and it mixes with the steam and provides lubrication to the engine. and they will seize without oil.

Here are the parts that make up the hand water pump. This pump moves the water from the tank into the boiler before the fire is lit. There's quite a few different materials here - steel, stainless steel, copper, brass, aluminum, nickel-silver, rubber, and mahogany.

Finished, but not yet painted.

It bolts into the 3003 aluminum water tank. On the far side is the filler cap.

This is really jumping forward in time, but I wanted to show you what it looks like when finished.

This is the brake lever mount that gets brazed to the handlebars. Sometimes the biggest problem making a part is figuring out how to hold it. By cutting this part off as the very last operation, there's always a big chunk to hold onto for the boring, milling, drilling, tapping and slotting.

It's a nice compound bend. copied from an original Columbia bicycle from the late 1800's. . and it too will look like a lug after a nice coat of nickel. The handlebar stem is four pieces of steel brazed together.Pacific Bending and Machine bent all the frame tubes and did the bars too.

but not all. . of the fittings needed to build one steamer.These are most.

and they would give me their best advice.626" so that the 5/8" copper tubes will just slide in. before being "rolled in". just to make sure. . or "flue sheets". then reamed to ..Each boiler gets (55) 12" long type K (refridgeration) copper tubes with a 5/8" OD.. One of the hardest parts of this project was finding out how to roll in these tubes on this very small boiler. They are referred to as "tube sheets". These two plates go on either end of the boiler. Here they are being drilled. and then at the very end tell me to phone another "expert". I made at least half a dozen calls to various steam experts. It got confusing after a while.

. then this roller is put into that tube.065" has to be rolled down.. You need to compress the copper 10%. This means a lot of measuring with a snap gauge and micrometer. The last steam cars were built in the 1920's. and the slightly angled steel rollers turn and also pull the tapered mandrel into the roller housing. You turn the square end clockwise. or wore out. I bought it from 81-year-old Bob Davis. Below is a genuine flue roller. Steam knowledge is out there.058 -. or expanded to .. so a wall thickness of . causing the rollers to expand out and into the copper. made years and years ago.The problem is that we are now three generations away from using steam. and it's slowly disappearing. It's so simple and works so beautifully. To roll a copper tube. who had it in his tool box for a very long time.059". and after that it was mostly industrial usage until the machines got updated with new technology. it's inserted into the reamed flue sheet hole.

200 psi. and prevent an explosion.. If the boiler ever runs out of water. put in a brass NPT fitting with a grease nipple. To get that pressure. and hand-pumped in grease.Boiler under pressure. the added heat will melt the solder.. so we figured that 310 psi showed a good safety margin. . filled with solder. This is a brass plug with a 1/4" hole thru the middle. Operating boiler pressure is 150 . I filled the boiler with water. There's actually only 54 tubes. very fast.). because the middle hole has the "fusable link". releasing pressure (downwards.

and fairly thick. . That glass tube is high quality. It shows how much water is in there.This is the sight glass that goes on the side of the boiler.

3" hole saw cutting it's way into the top "smoke stack". getting ready for the installation of the chimney. .

Bob Jorgensens's bike had a horizontal chimney. and the down-draft position (shown here). so the chimney is held on with masking tape and welding wire. The up-draft made it easier to light the fire. made the fire burn a little slower. . At this stage I'm checking the angle. but the Roper's chimney had a swivel so you could rotate it.

The footpegs are at the top. .This is looking up at the firebox. and you can see the centrestand.

Left side. The firebox door was cast in brass. . On the right is part of the water pump driven from the rear wheel. and also the centre-stand springs. The firebox "mouth" has been added. and machined to fit.

.Here you see the three main components that comprise steam: (left to right) smoke box with chimney stub / the boiler with frame mounts / and the fire box.

) 8" OD with a .250" wall thickness. . The tubing for the boiler is seamless DOM (drawn over mandrel..Other side.

so I'll show you a few pictures of how they came to be. The forks got made along the way. There's quite a few mock-up stages along the way to make sure we're on track.Everything seems to be fitting well. .

and cut out some fork crowns. Angle the tops downwards. .Start with 1/2" steel plate.

Machine and braze in the steerer tubes. then cut the tapers for the roller bearing races. .

.. . but to make a dedicated fixture for 4 forks wasn't going to happen. The jig is a little Mickey Mouse.The fork blades were cut from a 1/4" sheet of 4130.

. I could NOT get that valve to seal. and painted gloss black. Forks are finished. On the front of the machine is the steam whistle.Fast Forward. and finally disconnected it. No matter what I tried. complete with antique valve and cast lever.

These wooden lengths are held in place with brass strips and 10-32 brass countersunk screws. I'm not much of a wood-worker. Everything has to fit very well. . and don't have the tools.The mahogany strips were cut by Pacific Pattern. so it gets time consuming. Their quality is very good.

.Fitting strips around the engine and making slow progress.

.At first I had envisioned that the two side panels would come off easily as separate pieces. I soon realized that this was just not possible. allowing easy access to the internals.

the mahogany has been stained and verathaned. .. and the copper tube (in the middle. The chimney is not yet screwed onto the brass ring. thereby aiding the draft.) has a 90. and the color darkened somewhat.Here.degree elbow to shoot the exhaust out the chimney.

Here's the cladding right before the big stain. . The aluminum strips help sandwhich the wood in the mid-section.

For such a simple machine there seems to be a lot going on. . Fasteners are stainless steel with all markings machined off the heads.The boiler is painted heat-resistant flat black.

I found some ceramic insulation that gets used in foundries and is good to 2700 degrees F. . Kind of like wrapping a baby in a very warm blanket.

. I understand now that I was somewhat naive in this conclusion.Steamer is done.

Nice. cool autumn day. .

Fork angle VERY relaxed at 65 degrees (from horizontal. and bars very swept back..The riding position is completely old fashioned.). High seat position. . Feet well forward.

I know now the upswept chimney is mainly for lighting the fire. He was doing his own research. and this was not to be the only time. Anyway. and realized the steamer needed a damper for the chimney. . It looks a little like open heart surgery . but he said no. the steamer came apart. and Dick.This steam project really was a whole education for myself. because the angle really helps. I had figured that rotating the chimney down was enough to dampen the fire.

The damper works on the "butterfly" principal. . complete with wooden knob.

.And it definitely filled in that space nicely. Now the bike really was done. and ready for fire-up.

but steam is air with added heat AND moisture. This seemed odd at first. and it worked very well indeed. . On 65 psi of steam. The engine was taken out and sent off to Bob Davis for modifications. the engine wouldn't even turn the back wheel once. so it really is a LOT different. which is all the boiler could get due to leaks.Only problem was that steam leaked out from everywhere it seemed! Pete and I had tested the engine on 50 psi of air.

annealing. The two circular coils on the left are to be positioned inside the smoke stack. it's not good for performance. Bending copper tubing requires MANY stages of heating.Dicks' steam knowledge was expanding. In theory this is a great idea. because you really don't want cold water cooling the boiler down. and bending. and now he wanted a pre-heater for the water to be pumped into the boiler. .

. the coils hindered the up-draft. It all came apart one more time.In reality. and the fire wouldn't burn as hot. and one coil was removed.

This is part of the video. Dick has only seen pictures of his bike at this point.. remember. thank you. Notice how the steam hugs Pete's back as he cruises by. . riding Dicks' 1894 Roper steam bike.. "Pete's Garage". Lester. Now that's a good friend.Here's Pete Gagan. for this great shot.

I was working in the shop.Pete and Lester had that steamer up and down my street... . and no one noticed just how much heat got generated. and all he could say was "ka-ching.. Notice also. ka-ching!" The right side of the bike is so busy. Dick wasn't impressed when he saw the pictures.. the "header wrap" used to insulate the mouth of the firebox. It really was a little excessive. that the (new) brass plate really helps to balance the proportions. and the firebox got re-filled several times.

of any bike he has ever owned. by far.What's it like to ride? It rides and handles well.. However. especially when you ride through puddles. so that's why my knees are so far apart.. and says that his steamer gets the most attention. Acceleration is modest. the fun factor is HUGE! It sounds like a little locomotive. and the bars hit my (long) legs when I corner. Pete has owned all sorts of exotic bikes. The seat is uncomfortable. . The brake is virtually useless. remembering the slow steering.

now that everyone else has ridden it! Thank you Dick. .Dick will finally have his bike. for having so much patience.

com/watch?v=t93QlgBu4Is . and being my friend. and thank YOU for stopping by! . * checkout the video > http://www.youtube..And thank you Pete. for sharing your knowledge of steam..

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