1940s Hensel Steam-Powered Motorcycle

Scotty GilbertsonBy Scotty Gilbertson

Oh no, not another 1940s Hensel Steam-Powered Motorcycle! Wait, what? A Hensel Steam-Powered Motorcycle?! What the heck is that, you ask? Well, I’m not sure if I even know! This uber-custom, steampunk, post-apocalyptic, Mad Max machine was custom made by a gentleman in the 1940s. It’s listed on eBay with a current bid price of just over $1,500 but the reserve isn’t met. Try to explain this one to your shipper. Not to mention your spouse. Or, maybe even to yourself! Unless you live in Rockaway Park, New York, you most likely won’t be driving this one home, although it has been titled in California as a home built motorcycle! “Yes, DMV? I have a 1940s steam-powered, three-wheeled motorcycle and.. ” click.

This thing is laugh-out-loud fantastic! It’s like Caractacus Potts traded in his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for something even more fantastical. The story goes that an aviation mechanic, and obviously a closet genius and engineer, Fred Hensel, made this thing in the 1940s. This is a three-wheel motorcycle but it looks more like an armored car. And, yes, it has natural air-conditioning!

Apparently, anything and everything that could be handmade was. He “even made the door handles and hinges instead of using existing ones.” It has “rack and pinion steering, a 2-part fold-up steering column, which folds up, and away, for entry into the vehicle.” The seller says that you “could write a book on all of the insane engineering that went into this.” Now that’s my kind of testimonial. 

After crawling into the seat, you’ll see these controls in front of you. For anyone older than maybe 40 or 50, this may not seem as daunting as it must be for anyone who grew up with push-button start and a one-click CVT transmission, not to mention that a lot of vehicles don’t even have basic gauges anymore! This is one of those theft-proof vehicles, at least as far as driving it away goes. I guess Jay Leno and a few of you who are familiar with steam-powered vehicles could fire this one up, literally, and take off with it. I’m dying to know what the seller’s reserve is, and where they got this! They says that they’re selling it because it’s not getting the attention that it deserves in their small collection. What is that giant, beautiful car parked behind this machine?!

Prepare to have a few skinned knuckles and elbows operating this monster. I don’t see a GPS or a cup holder, hmm.. The registration is from the 1960s and I wonder if it actually could be titled and registered now? The seller “had some steam guys look it over and it was figured out that it burned “solid fuel” wood, coal, zombies, anything, would be burned to make the steam.” Ha! Darn near like a Chrysler Turbine but not quite as finished off.. but what a work of engineering art. I would love to have this machine, just to make sure that it gets preserved. Would any of you know how to operate a steam-powered vehicle like this? What do you think of this home-built Wenkel?

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Comments

  1. RayT Member

    Hard to imagine the time, thought and skill spent creating this! I’m sure Mr. Hensel was mighty proud of it, and I’d say he had every right to be! This certainly wasn’t built from plans in Popular Mechanics….

    I’d love to have it, though I’d approach actual driving with extreme caution, as steam boilers can be problematic if not thoroughly engineered and in top shape. But that doesn’t matter, not at all. Just looking at it is enough of a treat.

    Thanks for finding this, Scotty!

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  2. Howard A Member

    Hmm, let’s see. Clearly an oddball of epic proportions, never heard of it, yep, had to be Scotty. Not sure where to start, except, I agree with Ray, must have been a big job. Steam scares the heck out of me and every once in a while, you hear of one letting loose during an exhibition. The one in Ohio a few years ago was really sad( owner and I believe, several bystanders were killed), prompting a more thorough inspection of these. No thanks. looks like a double death-trap to me, sorry.

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    • Jay E.

      You are complete mistaken about “every once in a while” regarding the steam hobby. According to the insurance industry, the Medina incident was the ONLY ONE IN MODERN TIMES. It was an extreme case of neglect and the owner had been warned numerous times about his neglect. It had ALL the safety devices disabled. It was a 100% avoidable accident. Fortunately the insurance industry realized the reality of the situation and continues to offer insurance to hobbyists today.
      With a thorough inspection and knowledgeable firing, this vehicle could be an interesting, fun, (but impractical) vehicle.

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    • DrinkinGasoline

      I knew the owner of the tractor and I was there in 2001 as a first responder already at the fairgrounds as 1 of 6 Firefighter/Medics on what is called fire watch. The owner ran a excavating company and did some work on my land when we built our house. With all due respect for the deceased, the owner drove the tractor approximately 1 mile from his company’s location to the fairgrounds when county regulations clearly state that steam tractors have to be trailered in. Next, the owner did work on the tractor that was found to be lacking at best and would have been deemed inoperable by the state boiler inspector. I was about 125 yards away when it exploded, sending scalding water and shrapnel in a 100 yard radius killing the owner, his son and 2 others instantly and a 5th died later at the hospital.
      We had numerous injuries ranging from cardiac arrest, burns, broken bones, cuts/tears, etc. Triage was a very daunting task. A county emergency “all call” was initiated bringing in all area fire departments (FT and Volunteer) as well as 3 helicopters and private ambulances responding to transport the injured.
      It looked and sounded like a war zone, literally. As Jay states above, the tractor was very poorly maintained mechanically and should never have been fired let alone driven as much as 25 feet. The owner’s family lost everything as a result of the preventable tragedy.

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      • Howard A Member

        Wow, Drinkin’, that’s intense. In all fairness, many exhibitions go on without a hitch. Truth be known, they are exciting to watch. It’s like anything, you can’t have zero risk in life. I love top fuel drag racing, and in California a few years back, a dragster ( Antron Brown) let go right in front of me.( at the finish line, where I was sitting) Had it let go any sooner, the stands could have gotten showered with parts. And it does happen. Point is, did it stop me from going again, heck no, and one must be aware of what’s going on around them, not staring at a smartphone ( or whatever) In the event of a boiler incident, it would be pretty hard to hide from that. Thank you for your service, not sure I could do that.

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      • DrinkinGasoline

        Howard, I sincerely appreciate the thanks, and I do love my vocation. You are correct in that 100% safety is unobtainable. Sadly, that following September, I along with a few from my station were on our way to NY on the morning of the 12th to help wherever we could. 2001 was not a good year for those in public safety.

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  3. dirtyharry

    Looking at some of the recent BF posts, I can’t decide what the bigger death trap is, sitting on this home built steam boiler, the 1960 swing axle Corvair or the Pinto with the potentially exploding fuel tank. However, it would look great in front any motorcycle shop with signage like “we repair any make or model.”

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  4. JW

    I would love to have it just for the sake of having something no ones heard of or had one, display only, you could trailer it to motorcycle shows and be the talk of the show.

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  5. That Guy

    I have officially seen the coolest thing on the internet. And possible the most suicidal. Firing up a 70-year-old homebuilt steam vehicle? That sounds like a really certain way to die in spectacular fashion.

    I’d still love to have this in my living room and build a replica of Warehouse 13 around it though.

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  6. Dave Wright

    I owned a steam turbine ship at one time…….it is terribly inefficient. It was a 210 footer and burned diesel to make the steam. It used nearly 10 times the fuel as if it had been a straight Diesel engine.it was cheaper to install Diesel engines to move it to the west coast from the eastern seaboard than to pay the fuel bill for the steam turbines. I am with Howard on old steam engines and remember the explosion in Ohio well. Old guys were driving antique riveted steel tank steam tractors and one let go. Nearly all the steam powered paddle wheelers were destroyed by explosions, many killed hundreds of people. some that were not totally destroyed by the first explosion were repaired only to blow up energy in steam is incredible. Off course, nuclear power is really steam. So this machine would be more correctly described as coal or wood powered than steam.

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    • Bill

      or perhaps nuclear powered? eh??? eeehhh???? now there’s a plan! What could possibly go wrong?

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  7. Mark

    Someone should tell Leno about this thing- guaranteed he does not have one like it, and he can probably afford to hire a steam engineer to safely restore and use it from time to time.

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    • racer99

      Had the same thought — this has Leno written all over it.

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  8. erikj

    WOW! Cant say I would even try to fire it up, but what a mind Mr. Hinkle must have had to have made this! I would love to have it just for ,what the feel is that-factor. I think it would be the hit of any car show because every one would be in awe! over just the works of this.
    As a matter of fact, I hate to say it but I just partake in this auction although I’m sure it will go over my budget
    Well you cant win if you don’t play!!!!!!.
    I think it would be a hoot at car shows, and that what I would do with it, show it off like it deserves.

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  9. erikj

    Check out that rear axle- Hugh. Maybe a little overboard but who knows he is smarter than most of us so he knew what he was doing.

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    • GaryC Member

      That rear axle reminds me of some of the old golf carts with 9 inch Ford rear ends in them.

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  10. erikj

    OH SHIT I just bid. God I hate it when this happens. We will see how far I can hang on. I am not bidding this up, I really like this strange thing. That, take it to shows would be great and I ,m sure it would be a top hit-maybe win something because its so off the wall, you cant stop looking at it and find more things about it.
    I’ve been to a lot of shows and this kind of works is a show stopper.

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  11. Skloon

    Hmm I probably would be the only guy on my street to have one

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  12. Red'sResto

    Man this thing could be the baddest hot dog food truck (tike?) ever!

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    • Skloon

      Easy to steam the dogs

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  13. Leon

    A rolling sauna / greenhouse !!!

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  14. David Wilk Staff

    Scotty, this may be your best find ever. I love this machine. Since my wife’s grandfather was a Hensel, I am thinking about buying this for her birthday later this month. However I suspect this may not be the present she has in mind.

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  15. ELMER TURNER

    You might as well sit on an old fashioned pressure cooker with out the safety valve working if you want to blow yourself up. lol

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  16. Mike Young

    Not a “wankel” though…. But I’d pass on firing it up.

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  17. Rocko

    Cockpit reminds me of the ‘Hemi Under Glass ‘ 67 Barracuda that i found left for dead years ago.

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  18. Van

    I couldn’t resist, drive it, he’ll yea. If it blows up and I get killed, think of the stories I could tell. “We’ll St. Peter last thing I remember i was telling a guy to hold my beer”

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  19. Fred W.

    Leave the steam components in place, but hide a golf cart drivetrain under it so you can cruise around the car show grounds. A fake steam generator and subwoofer sound effects system (complete with a button for “boiler explosion”) would make every excursion a hit.

    Can you imagine what it would look like buffed out?

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  20. Russell

    This has Jay Leno written all over it.

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  21. Jay E.

    I love this vehicle, but have enough steam power to last me a lifetime already. Looking at the photos, I don’t see the steam “engine” anywhere. Perhaps it is steam turbine powered? I see an amp gauge, perhaps steam over electric? I’m guessing that this has a flash tube (same as an instant on water heater, hear of any of them blowing up?) boiler, much like a Dobble or Stanley steamer. I can’t see any pressure vessel boiler. It looks like the water tank is up top and the condenser is on the side? I agree, this has Leno written all over it.

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  22. Dan

    I am way outta my league on this one. Heck, I am not sure what direction is what on the inside pictures!

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  23. BHB

    Questions, questions, is that cylinder hanging on the side a condenser? Where is the fire door for stoking the flame?(rear?). Where is the coal carried? Why does it need a massive truck rear-end? Is the transmission an unused relic? I’m sure (hope) the boiler is a monotube to keep the explosions minimized.

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  24. Dan10

    There is a surprising amount of wiring and switches all over this machine. I agree with Jay E. and think steam turbine. I love it and wish I could bid.

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  25. David Frank David F Staff

    As far as steam powered vehicles, they run several small scale steam trains at a local park quite safely. They are safe and great fun to run, even the wood fired engine you have to keep stoking.

    All steam vehicles must be inspected and pressure tested. In California “The pressure vessel unit is responsible under Labor Code sections 7620-7771 for the inspection of boilers (any fired or unfired pressure vessel used to generate steam pressure by the application of heat), and tanks (any fired or unfired pressure vessel used for the storage of air pressure or liquefied petroleum gases).”

    So, it would seem, properly inspected steam vehicles are quite safe.

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  26. K.C.

    This would look great on the lawn at Pebble Beach! Preservation Class.

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  27. John

    This is why I shouldn’t subscribe to BF, God help me I need this. Take it to the antique engine shows.

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  28. newfieldscarnut

    A lot of hot air about this one .

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  29. Peter

    (1) Looking at the side view photograph, I would say that the rear wheel track is so wide compared to the wheelbase it would handle poorly if at all. Definitely a low speed vehicle plus it appears to have little rake on the front wheel.

    (2) If you just wanted to get it to move for demonstration, without worrying about the boiler exploding, you could bypass the boiler and power it with a bottle of compressed air and a squirt of olive or castor oil in the piston and valves.

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  30. packrat

    Passed by all the thoughts of skin flayed open with invisible steam, shrapnel, and lingering death–went right to, “That thing needs to have more ground clearance”. Best to erikj or other new owner, I’d love to crawl all over it, and ask lots of questions about what you’ve found out, at the next vintage tractor show.

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  31. MARK BOYCE
  32. Bill McCoskey

    It looks like the steam engine is a low pressure double expansion setup. That would explain the need for a transmission, unlike the more common high pressure steam vehicles that have plenty of torque at 0 RPM, a low pressure steam engine would need that gearbox, but I don’t see a clutch!

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  33. JW

    The more I look at this thing it seems he started with one of those motorcycle trikes the meter maids would drive around town and give you parking tickets.

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  34. Michael S.

    I think the car behind it is a 1934 Nash.

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  35. davem

    I think Jay Leno should be contacted with this !
    He loves to tinker with odd ball vehicles like this, and his shop could be the only one that would get it running and driveable !!

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  36. jrc

    100 mph speedo

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  37. Scotty Gilbertson Scotty Staff

    Auction update: this mind-blowing machine sold for $8,361.96!

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    • GaryC Member

      Does anyone know where this went? Just curious to see what ever gets done to it.

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      • Dave

        Went to a US collector.

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