1910 Stanley Steamer
1910 Stanley Steamer
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

When the first spindly, internal combustion-engined vehicles appeared in the 1880s, steam already had nearly a 200 year start. Steam pioneer Thomas Newcomen had used one for mine de-watering in the early 18th century.

The first mechanical road vehicle was a steam tractor built by Nicholas Cugnot in France in 1769. Canada’s first “car” was Henry Seth Taylor’s steam-powered buggy built in Stanstead, Quebec in 1867.

Steam engines had disadvantages for road-going vehicles. They were heavy for the power they produced, they required a fairly skilled operator, and they took time to get up steam. There was also the unfounded fear of boiler explosion.

But there were some advantages, the most important being the tremendous torque available from almost zero crankshaft rpm, thus eliminating the need for a clutch. A steamer could accelerate quicker and climb faster than a gasoline-powered car of the era. Gasoline engines had to be spinning at relatively high rpm to develop much power.

Steam’s inherent disadvantages didn’t deter some hardy pioneers from pursuing steam-powered automobiles. Brothers Francis E. and Freeland O. Stanley were two of them, and theirs, more than any other name, became associated with steam cars.

The identical Stanley twins had made a fortune in the dry-plate photography business, first in Lewiston, Me., and later in Boston. Toward the end of the 19th century they began experimenting with a steam-powered car, but were disappointed with the weight of the steam engines available. The 272 kg (600 lb) engine and boiler under consideration was heavier than their planned car! An engineering friend designed them an engine that weighed just 16 kg (35 lb).

They replaced the traditional heavy boiler with a vertical, cylindrical sheet copper shell wrapped with piano wire for strength. This weighed only 57 kg (125 lb), and could withstand pressures up to 300 pounds per square inch, although they started using only 150.

By 1898 the brothers had built three steamers which they tested extensively around Cambridge and Newton, Massachusetts. They sold their first car in Boston that September. The first Boston automobile show that October included speed and hill-climbing competitions which the Stanley won easily, including successfully scaling a 30 percent grade.

This publicity brought more orders. An empty factory next to their photography plant was acquired, and within a year of their first sale they made an estimated 200 cars.

Like others, the Stanley drew extensively on carriage and bicycle technology. The engine was under the seat with the vertical boiler behind it. Chain drive went to the rear axle, and tiller steering was used.

The Stanleys’ success attracted the interest of John B. Walker, publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine, who wanted to buy the business. To dissuade him they named what they thought was a ridiculously high price: a quarter million dollars in cash. To their surprise Walker promptly paid it, and the Stanleys were out of the car business. The new owner changed the name to the Locomobile Company of America.

Still keen, the Stanleys were back in the steam automobile business by 1901. They were promptly sued by George Whitney, another steam-car maker, for infringement of his patented chain tensioner. The Stanleys changed their design, placed the engine horizontally in the rear of the car, and sent the power to the axle through a gear drive. It proved to be a better system.

One of the first people to exploit the steamer’s high performance potential was Louis Ross of Newtonville, Massachusetts. He fitted his streamlined “Wogglebug” with two boilers and two Stanley engines and reached a stunning 152 km/h (94.7 mph) on Ormond Beach, Florida in 1905.

Encouraged by this, the Stanleys constructed a special car that company driver Fred Marriott piloted to a new land speed record of 205 km/h (127.6 mph) in January, 1906. In 1907 Marriott crashed at an estimated 150 mph (242 km/h), fortunately not fatally, while trying to better his own record, which stood for almost four years.

The company produced a variety of models, becoming best known for the “coffin nose” hood that housed the cylindrical boiler. The gasoline engine was, however, improving steadily.

The introduction of the 1912 Cadillac’s electric starter dealt a heavy blow to the steamer. The internal combustion engine had eliminated its most encumbering trait: the difficult and dangerous hand crank.

Although the Stanley’s continued building cars through the teens, the gasoline engine was predominating. This, and the fact that the Stanley didn’t always have the latest in steam technology, brought bankruptcy in 1923. The company was reorganized as the Steam Vehicle Corp. of America in 1924, but was permanently out of the car business by about 1925.

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