from 'Old Time Steam Cars' courtesy of Owls Head Transportation Museum
The story of the Stanley Steamer begins with the birth of the Stanley twins, Francis E. and Freeland O. later known simply as 'F.E.' and 'F. 0.'in Kingfield, Maine, on June 1, 1849. As they grew up almost indistinguishable from each other, even to their neatly trimmed beards and manner of dressing, it became apparent that they both had inherited the gift of inventiveness, though its expression took different forms. While 'F.E.' inclined toward the practical and developed into a 'sort of all-around mechanical genius,' twin 'F.O.' discovered academic tendencies and eventually became a schoolteacher. Their early activities included the production of the first commercially manufactured violins in the U.S.; the invention of a home generator for illuminating gas which sold well before the competitive advent of municipal gas works; the first practical manufacture of photographic dry plates when photography was still in its infant stage; and the development of early X-ray equipment.
Of all these, 'F.E.' visualized the greatest profit in photography and with less than $500 started a small dry-plate manufacturing business on his own at Lewiston, Maine, in 1875, at the age of 26. He did so well that in 10 years he managed to save $50,000 and with this joined by brother 'F.O.' who dropped school teaching in 1885started a much larger photographic firm in Newton, Mass., known as the Stanley Bros. Dry Plate Manufacturing Co.
Another prosperous decade went by for the twins who, driven by a restless imagination, began to look around for something else into which to channel their inventive ability. They found it in the first stirrings of a movement toward the commercial production of 'horseless carriages' propelled by steam. The idea finally crystallized in the fall of 1896 when the twins attended the Brockton Falls Fair in Massachusetts, where a 'horseless carriage' was due to perform. The exhibition was disappointing, the car breaking down before it even completed one lap of the course; but here was a challenge, and something prompted 'F.E.' to say: 'Well, boys, before another fall passes I will show you a self-propelled carriage that will go around that track not only once but several times without stopping!'
'F.E.' studied every available design before he came up with a set of specifications that held practical promise. The first Stanley Steamer was not begun until July 6, 1897, and was completed in October of that year. The brothers made no attempt to build their own engine, but secured one best suited to their needs from J.W. Penny & Sons, Mechanic Falls, Mass. Other parts they obtained as required from various outside sources, so that the carriage was more of an assembled than a manufactured job. But the result was amazing.
The steamer performed just as predicted by 'F.E.', making several easy rounds of the Brockton Fair course. The outcome was that the brothers immediately began work on three more steamers of similar design. One of these was sold to John Brisbane Walker of Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1898, who evinced tremendous enthusiasm and in turn sold it to a financier named Amzi L. Barber with the same effect. Seeing a big future in these steamers, Barber and Walker decided to buy out the Stanley brothers.
Meanwhile, 'F.E.' and 'F.O.' scored their first big triumph on November.' 8, 1898 when they entered one of their early steamers in the Open-Air Horseless Carriage Meet held at Charles River Park, Cambridge, Mass., on a track 1/3 of a mile long. Before some 5,000 spectators jammed into the grandstand, the Stanley's drove their machine three times around the course in 2 minutes, 11 seconds, covering the mile at an average of 27.40 mph. Then 'F.E.' went on to do two miles without trouble in 5 minutes and 19 seconds at 22.22 mph. Almost immediately 100 prospective customers rushed to place orders for this remarkable steamer.
In 1899 the brothers purchased an old bicycle factory where production of the Stanley started in earnest on a commercial scale. The schedule called for 100 steam cars with standardized interchangeable parts. The bodies arrived from 'a maker of fine carriages' complete with leather dashboard and even a whip socket. From the fall of 1898 to the fall of 1899, the Stanleys built and sold not 100 but 200 steamers and were the first in the world to manufacture automobiles in commercial quantities. 'F.E.' took this success with characteristic confidence and was even casual about it. Said he: 'It is not necessary to make use of any patent or invention in order to turn out a practical motor carriage. The common sense use of known principles is all that is required.' To an interested press photographer who pointed out the risk, 'F.E.' said: 'Go on and take your pictures. We'll patent nothing.'
Stanley, in his steamer, preparing for an assault on Mt. Washington. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution and the Owls Head Transportation Museum.
He changed his mind, however, when persistently approached by Walker and Barber to sell out, and duly secured his carriage with the necessary protective patents. To Barber, the phenomenal success of the Stanley was the clincher. It made the enterprise even more desirable than before, and by the summer of 1899 he and Walker had purchased all the Stanley patents, good will and manufacturing facilities (including 100 wagons 'on the way') for $250,000, and formed the Loco mobile Co. of America with the object of manufacturing the Stanley under the new name.
Under the terms of the sale, the Stanley brothers undertook not to build any steam cars of their own for two years, the contract expiring May 1, 1900; but Walker and Barber had other troubles. Their rift in 1899 and the split of the new firm into two separate entities actually proved beneficial to the twins, for each became a consulting engineer with one of the rival companies 'F.E.' going with Loco mobile and 'F.O.' to Mobile.
The year 1899 was a highly profitable one for the Stanley's. In addition to the Loco mobile sale they disposed of their photographic business for a large sum to the Eastman Kodak Co. Money, certainly, was not one of their problems. That year, too, Mr. and Mrs. F.O. Stanley tackled the first climb of Mt. Washington by a self-propelled vehicle on August 31. It took them 2 hours 10 minutes to reach the top, but to the greater glory of the steamer they made it safely.
But the twins grew restless. They had enjoyed making their steamers and they had only sold out under approaches so persistent and determined that the buyers would brook no refusal. They had set the figure at a quarter of a million dollars, confident that Barber and Walker would back down, but their price had been paid without argument. And now they wanted to build more steam cars. To circumvent the problem of the patent sale, 'F.E.' spent a year redesigning the whole machine, and when at the close of 1900 the Stanley Mfg. Co. of Lawrence, Mass., came into being, he was careful to make this formal announcement: 'The Stanley Mfg. Co. should not be confused with the Loco mobile Co., the Mobile Co., nor the Stanley Brothers, all connected with the name Stanley and all employing steam as a mode of power, utilizing what has popularly become known as the 'Stanley Type' boiler and engine. Frank F. Stanley is the chief owner of the Stanley Mfg. Co., where the McKay Sewing Machines for shoes are made. This company, as is well known to the trade, is licensed to operate under the patents of George E. Whitney. To avoid confusion with other builders, the company has decided to market its product under the trade name of McKay, a name already well known to those acquainted with the Stanley Mfg. Co. that has built the McKay shoe machinery for many years...'
Apparently, everything seemed all right. The Stanley's had obtained a whole new set of patents and, technically at least, there was no breach of the agreement relating to the Loco mobile sale. But when the first of the new 'Stanley' Motor Carriages appeared, the lid blew off. Outraged by what it considered an act of moral duplicity and bad faith, the Loco mobile Company yelled the equivalent of 'We wuz robbed!' What was more, there seemed to be a point of fact involved. A small part on the chain-tensioning device of the new 'Stanley' was the same as that covered by the original patents purchased by the Loco mobile Co.
Threatened with a whale-sized lawsuit, the Stanley's took the wisest course. Rather than embark on costly litigation, they completely redesigned the transmission of their new car, using direct drive and a horizontal engine to go with it. This, naturally, took time, and though the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. was formed in the spring of 1901, production did not get under way until the fall of that year. By October, the original agreement with Loco mobile having lapsed, the Twins bought back all their original patents for a fraction of the sum they had received and were now free to use chain drive if they wished. They availed themselves of the opportunity while perfecting the direct drive transmission, which was not ready for production until May 1902.The way things turned out, the Stanley's built and sold 100 steam wagons at $600 each between October 1901 and September 1902, without showing a penny profit. Constant experiments, changes and improvements absorbed every penny they made.
But in 1902 the outlook for steamers generally was still very promising. Of the 909 automobiles registered in New York State alone, 485 were steam cars, mainly of Stanley, Loco mobile, Mobile and White origin.
Things really got under way in 1903, by which time the Stanley Motor Carriage Co., had become the Stanley Bros. Mfg. Co., Newton, Mass, with 140 hands on the payroll, turning out and selling three wagons a day without the help of any advertising. 'F.E.' rightly believed that the recommendation of the satisfied user is the most effective form of advertising, and this view was one that he preserved even after multi-million dollar ad agencies had become a necessary and accepted part of business.
In 1903, a Dr. C.A. Dennett of Arlington, Mass., drove a Stanley 1,000 miles on a vacation through Maine without a single trouble stop. He told everyone about it; and what could be a better advertisement than his enthusiasm? The four Stanley models offered that yearB, C, BX and CX, the latter two with 16-inch boilers and a working steam pressure of 350 to 600 poundswere selling like the proverbial hot cakes. On May 30, 1903, the first Stanley 'Wogglebug' racing car appeared at Readville Track near Boston, painted red and shaped like a cigar for low wind resistance. It made the Mile in 1 minute, 2 4/5 seconds at 21.09 mph beating another steam car (the Cannon) by 2 seconds but-as usual was damned by gas auto owners who dubbed it a 'freak.'
The first gas-powered automobile to conquer Mount Washington had done so in September 1902, over three years after F.O. Stanley's successful pioneer climb with a steamer. In 1904, 'F.E.' took a Model EX up in 27 minutes, filling the 'opposition' with dismay.
Stanleys were now selling steadily at the rate of about 1,000 a year, even though steamers had lost the commercial battle with their gasoline rivals. The twins, encouraged by competitive successes, produced a Florida racer late in 1905 from which were evolved the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Stanleys, designed for but never run in that event. This was a powerful job with a 4x6-in. two-cylinder engine and a 30-in. boiler. It was geared-up 2 to 1 so that at 60 mph the engine turned very slowly well below maximum efficiency. The following year, driven by F.E. Stanley with his son R.W. as passenger, this machine easily beat Walter Christie's famous front-drive gas car at Daytona Beach, Fla. in a match race. Meantime, in January 1906, the Florida steam racer driven by Fred Marriott had achieved a fantastic timed speed of 127.66 mph at Ormond Beach, Fla., being the first machine ever to propell a human being at over two miles a minute.
In the stock car class Stanley Steamers met with equal success, the 1906 Model H Gentlemen's Speedy Roadster claiming the title of Fastest Stock Car in the World, after winning a 15 mile handicap race at Ormond Beach in 13 min. 12 sees. (68.18 mph) and beating its nearest competitors by 4 to 5 minutes, 'without going to the expense of importing a $10,000 racing machine.'
Fred Marriott's miraculous escape from the record-breaking Stanley 'Beetle' crash at Ormond in 1907 rather cooled the Twins' ardor for racing; but production for the year was maintained at a satisfactory 600 to 700 cars. The first closed Stanley Steamer made its appearance in the guise of the Model J. Limousine with coachwork by the Currier Cameron Co., Amesbury, Mass. These were carriage builders which explained why it looked like 'a horse drawn hack.' Actually, this body style was built primarily for the use of Mrs. F.E., but found quite a few outside customers.
Eight models were on offer that year with a choice of two engines the 30 hp job of similar bore and stroke to the Florida and Vanderbilt racer, and a 20 hp machine. A 26 in. boiler was used on the larger cars and a 23 in. one on the smaller models..
Principal change for 1908 was the introduction of a Model M with a 114 in. wheelbase and a roomy Touring body, that yet could be driven at 60 mph as long as the road permitted.
Popular in 1909 was the Model 88 Mountain Wagon, seating 12 passengers, which owed its origin to the exclusive Stanley Hotel built by the brothers at Estes Park in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. It had earlier been developed mainly for use between Loveland Station and Estes Park, toting visitors 34 miles uphill to that magnificent scenic spot; but later was sold to many other users. The engine was a 'detuned' and lower-geared version of the famous Florida racer power unit, capable of tremendous hauling power.
Few changes marked the period 1909 to 1912, except the introduction of a Torpedo-type, hand-made aluminum body used on the Model 73 of 1911. But even at this comparatively late date, the Stanley brothers still clung to a wooden chassis frame when practically all other auto manufacturers had gone to pressed steel.
By 1914, when World War I broke out, Stanleys had a redesigned engine with cranks at 45° to one another, obviating dead center and the need of a flywheel. The number of moving parts was reduced to 13, yet with gains in efficiency, lightness and power. A year later the firm adopted a new V-type radiator-condenser and lengthened the wheelbase by 10 in. to 130 in. for still greater riding comfort. The wooden chassis was finally discarded in favor of a channel steel frame and an improved driller burner replaced the former slot type. The brakes, too, were larger and more powerful to cope with added weight.
In 1917 the firm discontinued the manufacture of commercial vehicles and offered only a 130 in. wheelbase chassis with three, five and seven passenger bodies. The famous brothers, 'F.E.' and 'F.O.', retired, and the business was reorganized and taken over by a new group. F.E. survived his retirement by only 14 months. Returning alone from a trip to Maine, he was involved in a serious auto accident and died on July 21, 1918 at the age of 70. The reorganized company went through several hands as sales continued to drop, for steam car lovers were, by then, shrinking into a minor group of 'enthusiasts.' By 1925 production had come to an end.