The Stanley Steamer

The steam-powered Stanley Steamer held America's attention — briefly.

the Stanley Steamer twins

A photo of the Stanley twins in one of their first cars.

Photo courtesy Sam Moore

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Photos of a 2-cylinder engine belonging to Eugene McMillan appeared in the February 2014 issue of Farm Collector. That engine, which I believe is from a Stanley steam car, triggered this story.

Two early manufacturers of horseless carriages — Ransome E. Olds and Henry Ford — built steam-powered cars before switching to gasoline engines. The May 21, 1892, issue of Scientific American quoted Olds as saying about his steam car, “It never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.”

The first automobile show in the country was held in November 1900 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Of the 34 makes on exhibit at the show, 19 were gas, six electric, two gas/electric and seven steam-powered. According to vintage car historian Floyd Clymer, at one time or another 124 makes of steam autos were manufactured in the U.S.

Steam had advantages — smooth, quiet operation without a transmission or gear changes, lots of power and fast acceleration — as well the disadvantage of needing lots of water and taking 10 minutes or so to get the burner lit and steam up.

The more successful early steam cars bore such nameplates as Doble, Locomobile, Ross, Stanley, and White, with one of the most famous being the Stanley Steamer. The story of it, and the Stanley brothers who built it, is fascinating.

Doubly ingenious

Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley were born in Maine, but by the late 1800s were living in Newton, Mass. F.E. and F.O. were identical twins and all their lives they dressed, cut their hair and trimmed their beards alike. Folks who knew them well said they thought alike as well, and that the only way to tell them apart was to tell a funny joke. Seems both would laugh and slap their thighs, but F.E. would exclaim, “Godfrey mighty!” while F.O. would cry, “Gee cracky!”

The Stanley twins made violins and patented a gas-illumination system for homes, but their main business was making dry photographic plates. In 1896 the brothers saw a crude steam car and F.E. decided to build one of his own.

He got a boiler and an engine and a light buggy frame on four bicycle wheels. The engine and boiler were too heavy for the frame but were mounted anyway. By this time F.O. had joined the venture. In 1897 they were ready for a test run. Cautiously, they lit the boiler and waited for steam pressure to build. Nothing exploded, so it was time for a road test. Neither had ever driven anything but a horse and buggy, but F.E., the bolder of the two, took the tiller.

In his 1952 book, Fill ’er Up, Bellamy Partridge gives the best description of the twins’ first road test: “They realized that this first ride might also be their last, so they decided to take it together. They climbed gingerly into the vehicle and firmly settled their derby hats on their identical heads.

“With a trembling hand F.E. gripped the tiller. As he opened the throttle, the car began to move, whistling like a teakettle and leaving a little white cloud of vapor behind.” The car shot out of an alley and surprised a horse “who gave a sudden leap (and) ran 4 miles before being stopped. The horse reached Newtonville Square far ahead of the Stanley Steamer, a feat that was not duplicated by either horse or automobile for several years to come.”

Marketplace takes notice

Although the Stanleys were happy the car had run and they had survived, they knew it hadn’t run well and its weight made it clumsy to handle. They developed a boiler weighing just 90 pounds and a 35-pound engine, and by 1898 they had built two or three additional machines.

F.E. Stanley set a new world speed record of 1 mile in 2 minutes and 11 seconds at a race in the fall of 1898 and effortlessly climbed an 80-foot high, 30 percent incline. His was the only car in the competition to make it to the top.

After this performance people began to notice the Stanley Steamer; letters from potential customers poured into Stanley Dry Plate Co., which was completely devoid of automobile manufacturing facilities.

The twins weren’t machinists and they knew nothing about manufacturing cars, but the 200 orders that came in provided an opportunity the hard-headed Yankee business men couldn’t pass up. They sold their photographic business to Eastman Kodak Co., bought an empty factory and went into the automobile business.

Name your price

In 1899 the Stanleys built 100 cars, filling about half the orders they had on hand, when Cosmopolitan Magazine’s John Brisben Walker called on them to sell advertising in his magazine. The twins didn’t believe in advertising, but Walker became convinced that their steam car was the wave of the future and offered to buy the company.

The brothers had only about $20,000 invested at the time and didn’t really want to sell, so they quoted what they considered a ridiculous price — $250,000 — and Walker accepted!

Walker and a partner, Amzi Barber, renamed the car, calling it the Locomobile. The two soon disagreed and split, with Barber continuing to make the Locomobile and Walker moving to New York to build the same car, which he called the Mobile.

After three years, Barber switched to gasoline engines and Walker became disillusioned with the auto business. The two offered to sell the original Stanley factory and all patent rights back to the brothers. The astute Stanleys offered $30,000, which was accepted, giving the twins back their company plus a profit of $220,000.

The need for speed

The Stanleys entered the new sport of speed tournaments, in which spindly cars and daredevil drivers competed to see who could set a new speed record. In 1905 they developed the streamlined Stanley Rocket, which one writer described as being “shaped like a cigar on wheels.” At Ormond Beach, Fla., in January 1906, Fred Marriott, the Stanley company’s head mechanic, drove the Stanley Rocket to an incredible (at the time) world speed record of 127.659 mph, becoming the first man to travel more than 2 miles a minute. The record set by the little 8 hp steam rocket stood until 1910, when Barney Oldfield ran 131.72 mph in a 200 hp Benz.

The next year at Daytona Beach, Marriott tried for a new record with a higher geared Rocket. He was running more than 150 mph when the car hit a depression in the sand and flipped. The Rocket was destroyed and Marriott injured; the Stanleys gave up racing as being too dangerous.

The brothers liked to drive fast themselves. A Timken bearing salesman, Eugene W. Lewis, wrote: “On one of my trips down there, Stanley asked me if I wanted to ride a mile a minute. That was unheard of at that time. We had none of the modern refinements — windshields, comfortable seats and such. I was wearing (goggles) and these were plastered down against my eyes so I could see nothing. According to the speedometer, the car hit 59 miles per hour — speed aplenty for me. I told him I had had enough and suggested that we do it again — never.”

The twins liked to play jokes on the traffic cops who were charged with enforcing the 8 to 10 mph speed limits of the day; one would speed through a small town until he was pulled over by a cop. As the officer wrote a ticket, the second twin, who had been following the first at a discreet distance, would speed past. The sight of an identical bearded miscreant whizzing by in an identical car would leave the lawman scratching his head and maybe swearing off the moonshine.

One of the big selling points of the steam car over a gasoline-powered version was that the steam engine didn’t have to be cranked to start. When Charles Kettering of Dayton invented a successful electric self-starter, and Henry Leland put it on the 1912 Cadillac, the steam car’s days were numbered. Stanley’s main competitors, Locomobile and White, switched to gasoline power, but the Stanley twins stuck with steam.

Steamer left in the dust

One day in 1917, F.E. Stanley was, as usual, speeding along the Newburyport Turnpike in Massachusetts. As his steamer topped a rise, he met two vehicles stopped side by side, blocking the road. With no time to stop, he yanked on the wheel, hurtled off the road and was killed. F.O. Stanley lost interest in the car business after his brother’s death and F.E.’s two sons-in-law took over active management of the company.

They modernized the Stanley Steamer, making it look more like contemporary gasoline models, began to advertise and refinanced the company. However, it was too late — the internal combustion engine had won out.

In 1923, the firm went into receivership and the assets were sold to an Allentown, Pa., company, Steam Vehicle Corp. of America. They made a few 2-cylinder, 20 hp touring cars in 1925, 1926 and 1927 before fading away entirely. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.