The Stanley Steamer - Why The Fascination

"What are you getting all steamed up about?", "Full steam ahead!", "You need to pick up steam", and "I'm running out of steam." are only a few of many commonly used "steam" phrases in the American lexicon. Part of the fabric of American English, they have remained long after the objects that prompted their use faded from routine use and even existence. A century ago steam engines drove powerful ships making transatlantic crossings. The choo-choo sound of powerful iron horses gliding along slick steel rails lives on with the excitement of children. Steam drove the American Industrial Revolution and it was only a matter of time before the steam engine would be used to replace the horse and buggy. In the 1800s most people had a working knowledge of steam making it the preferred choice of power for many mechanical devices and applications. While the internal-combustion engine had been under development since 1860, it suffered mechanical complexities not to mention being nearly impossible to start if not in ideal mechanical order. In the 1890s the steam automobile was beginning to offer a reliable but somewhat bulky and problematic means of personal transportation. Competing for a stake in the American transportation system was the electric car that today still enjoys experimentation and development along with a few commercially viable designs.

By the start of the 1900s over 125 American manufacturers offered steam cars with all sorts of options and features. Already a more common sight in England than America, it would take identical twins Freelan Oscar and Francis Edgar Stanley in 1897 to make the steam automobile a commercial business venture. Inventors at heart, the Stanley twins had already retired wealthy from developing the airbrush and more importantly a dry photographic plate coating process upon which George Eastman would build an empire.

The Stanley's first steam car was built for personal use but it gained immediate attention. With nearly 200 orders, an unexpected business blossomed. While their car looked similar to most others, their real advantage was simplistic automation. Their early steam engine boasted 13 moving parts with the count for the entire car at 37. It was light, quiet, and perhaps the most powerful vehicle of its time; definitely the fastest. Once lit, the car automatically generated steam to meet demand with little additional attention required except perhaps watching the water level. All that was required of the driver was to set the throttle to a comfortable speed and to move the tiller for steering.

Steam engines are the only engines (or motors) that generate maximum power from rest.  Through the simple movement of a lever the power was precisely controlled. With their finicky ignition systems, balky carburetors, and gear-grinding transmissions the "internal explosion engines" as the Stanley's called them were no match for the simplicity, reliability, and power of steam. The thrashing, banging, clattering, and smell of the internal combustion car was no match for the discernable hiss of a Stanley burner and the sound of tires rolling over stones on the dirt roads of the era.  The smell of raw gasoline, partially burned hydrocarbons, along with a mechanical complexity of hundreds of parts for the engine and transmission not to mention the car's audible noise further tarnished the early image of the gasoline-powered automobile.  In America the steam car gained popularity, especially with the rich, and Stanleys became the premier steam cars to own.

The Stanley Motor Carriage was born of an era where life was simpler, less strenuous; where the automobile was considered a weekend luxury rather than a necessity of life. Unfortunately the Stanley twins weren't interested in mass producing their products. They chose not to compete with Henry Ford who by 1914 was producing twice the cars in a day that the Stanleys produced in a year. With the introduction of the electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac the internal combustion engine became a snap to start and the twenty-minute firing-up wait of the steam car became a real disadvantage. Henry's Model T soon became available for one quarter the price of a Stanley and with the offerings of General Motors and Chrysler the end of the steam car was in sight.  With limited travel distance between charges, excessively short battery life compared to today's car batteries, and their generally slow top speeds the electric cars of the era never threatened the steam car's popularity and were definitely no match for the internal explosion powered automobile.

During 25 years of production the Stanley Motor Carriage Company produced 86 major models of steam cars with some models having up to 6 body style variants.  Overall production is estimated to be nearly 11,000 cars.  The Stanley/Locomobile was the nation's most popular car from 1900 through 1904 but by 1905 had fallen drastically to several models of internal combustion cars.  Their top production year was 1907 when 775 cars left the Newton, Massachusetts factory.  The most of any single model Stanley built was just over 1700 Model 735s (in 6 body styles; 7-passenger Touring, 4-5-passenger Touring,  4-passenger Coupe, 7-passenger Sedan, 2-passenger Roadster, and 4-passenger Brougham).  Model 735 cars were started in 1918, and the only model car built between 1919 and 1921.  The Model 735 was phased out in 1922 for the more automated Model 740.  The only other models that came close in production numbers were the Model E/EX and F and their respective numbers were in the 750 range.  Built between 1905 and 1907, these cars are attributed to having established the Stanley name.

The Stanleys sold their business in 1917 and by 1924 the production line closed. While Abner Doble was able to revitalize a short interest in the steam car with a vehicle that was nearly instant starting and fully automated (Doble's atomizing burner design was the patented prototype for what we now use as the oil burner to heat a majority of the homes in the US), the steam car's destiny was not as the car of the future but a thing of the past. Today there are more Stanley Motor Carriages preserved, restored, and operating than any other steam car ever made. The Stanley Steamer, often affectionately called "The Flying Teapot", is treasured worldwide as a unique example of American Yankee inventiveness and ingenuity.

In the course of their lives the Stanley Twins were awarded numerous patents not only related to their steam car but also the air brush and even a self-propelled interurban railroad coach powered by Stanley steam engines.  For an Adobe Acrobat Portable Data Format (PDF) listing of the many patents that the Stanley Twins were associated with, click the following link;

Patents of FE & FO Stanley

Stanley Steamer world records established by Fred Marriott in the famous 'Rocket' steamer:-




January 23, 1906

1 mile (rolling start)

31-4/5 seconds (113.2 MPH)

January 24, 1906

5 miles

2 minutes, 47-1/5 seconds (107.7 MPH)

January 26, 1906

1 kilometer

18-2/5 seconds (195.7 KPH - 121.6 MPH)

January 26, 1906

1 mile (rolling start)

28-1/5 seconds (127.6 MPH)

January 26, 1906

2 miles

59-3/5 seconds (120.8 MPH)

These records represent runs made in one direction only. Not until December 1910, did two way timed run regulations go into effect.

On August 31, 1899 Freelan 0. Stanley and his wife Flora drove their Stanley-designed Locomobile #93 up the 7.6 mile, 4,725 foot vertical rise Mount Washington carriage road in two hours and 10 minutes (including a stop to take on water), far less than the usual six hours it took to climb the mountain in a horse drawn stage.

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