History of the Stanley Steamer Steam Powered Car Part 1

About the Stanley steam powered automobile, history of their invention, its popularity and eventual decline.



Francis E. (F.E.) and Freelan O. (F.O.) Stanley were stubbornly crusty New Englanders who might have become two of the great giants in American business. They could have changed the course of American automotive history. But, they didn't much feel like it.

Legend has it that the brothers, identical twins no less, saw an automobile on display at a fair in 1896. Deciding it was a bad job, they got to work making a better one. They were not mechanical amateurs; they already ran a successful business manufacturing dry photographic plats, which they later sold to Kodak. So a year after the fair, they had put together their own car, powered by steam.

The steam concept was known well before the Stanleys utilized it. As early as 1769, the world's first self-propelled vehicle, an enormous steam-powered three-wheeled machine built in France by Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, had moved at a speed of nearly 3 mph. Cugnot proved that the power of steam under pressure, pushing against pistons, could turn wheels.

That the Stanleys chose steam was not unusual, because, around the turn of the century, steam-operated cars seemed destined to take over the growing automobile market. Electric cars needed battery recharging far too often, and internal-combustion machines were smelly, required cumbersome, often painful hand cranking to start, and were wretchedly complicated.

On the other hand, F.E. and F.O. created machines whose engines had a mere 15 moving parts and which required no transmission, clutch, spark plugs, or gearshift. The driver of a steamer lighted his boiler, waited for the water to heat, opened the right valves, and got going. The machines made use of anything burnable, from gasoline to coal to kerosine to paraffin. Under a full head of steam, they could surpass 150 mph, quietly and with minimal pollution. They could run in reverse as fast as they could go forward. True, they took a while to warm up, but once they got started, few cars could catch a Stanley. In terms of their appearance, steamers looked no different from other cars. People who have never seen one generally imagine a giant home hot-water heater on wheels. Not so. The boilers could be made so small that only a few years ago, and enterprising Californian mounted one under the hood of his Volkswagen Beetle.

One problem, though, was that the twins were not overly business-oriented. By choice, the small Stanley factory produced fewer than 1,000 cars annually. Most of their advertising consisted of F.E. and F.O., dressed identically from derby hats to socks to long beards, driving side by side into a town, through the town, and out again. The sight never failed to arouse curiosity. They resisted style changes, written guarantees, and down payments. If a buyer was willing and able to plunk down $2,000 or so, in cash, he might get a Stanley. But only if the brothers decided he should have one. If anything ever went wrong with the car, the factory fixed it for free. It was all very simple.

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